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Court adjourns trial of aid workers involved in refugee rescues

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The trial of 24 aid workers involved in refugee rescues began on the Greek island of Lesbos on Thursday and was immediately adjourned amid calls from rights groups that authorities drop the “absurd” charges of spying and disclosing state secrets.

Judicial officials said the misdemeanor court on Lesvos declared itself not competent to try the case and the defendants left without restrictions pending the scheduling of a new trial that would involve more senior judges.

The Greek and international volunteers include the Syrian-born competitive swimmer Sara Mardini, whose sister Yusra Mardini was part of the refugee swimming team at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and Tokyo earlier this year. Mardini was not present at Thursday’s hearing because she is barred from entering Greece, something her lawyer, Harris Petsikos, called “a paradox.”

In 2015, Sara and Yusra saved the other 19 passengers by pulling their sinking boat to shore for four hours.

The aid workers were affiliated with the Emergency Response Center International (ERCI), a nonprofit search-and-rescue group operating on Lesvos from 2016 to 2018. The island was then on the frontline of Europe’s refugee crisis, with scores of asylum-seekers arriving daily on its shores.

The defendants, including many who spent several months in pre-trial detention, face a range of charges including misdemeanor counts of espionage-related offenses, illegal access to state communications and assisting criminal activity.

They deny any wrongdoing, maintaining that they simply wanted to help save lives when the island of Lesvos was overwhelmed by refugee and migrant arrivals from nearby Turkey.

“I feel very angry. Because we have to wait years more. We’ve been waiting for years. We spent three and a half months in pre-trial (detention) and now we have to wait again,” one of the defendants, Seán Binder, a German citizen who spend most of his life in Ireland, said.

Binder was arrested in 2018 and spent 107 days in pre-trial detention.

“I am hoping to take him home,” his mother, Fanny, said.

One of the defendants, 73-year-old Dutch national Pieter Wittenberg, said he was helping refugees by cooking meals and handing out clothes.

“Would I do it again? Yes, of course,” he said. “There is nobody else who can help them, just the volunteers and the NGOs and not, indeed not, the authorities. They have other things to do.”

A European Parliament report in June called the trial “the largest case of criminalization of solidarity in Europe.”

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other rights groups say the charges should be dropped.

“The charges perversely misrepresent the group’s search-and-rescue operations as a smuggling crime ring,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement ahead of the trial.

Giorgos Kosmopoulos, an observer from Amnesty International at Thursday’s hearing said he was “very disappointed” at the latest delay.

“What we wanted to hear today was clearly that they are not guilty, that they are innocent. Instead of that we will have more and more trials, more and more time waiting while their lives hang in the balance,” he said.

More than a million migrants and refugees, many escaping war in Iraq and Syria, traveled to Lesvos and other Greek islands from Turkey in 2015-16, with most moving on to Germany and other European Union countries.

The Greek government has taken a tougher line with illegal and irregular migration in recent years, intercepting boats at sea and extending a steel wall along its land border with Turkey. It denies frequent allegations by migrant advocacy groups that it carries out summary deportations, also known as pushbacks.

Greek officials say the country’s intelligence service has assisted in the investigation of a small number of non-profit organizations active on the islands, suspected of collaborating with smuggling rings, but have not made details of the probe public. [AP, Reuters]