The Greek Police (ELAS) recently went over the headquarters of Aspida, a private maritime security company owned by the founder of Emergency Response Center International (ERCI), with a fine-tooth comb, in a search for evidence to support allegations that members of the nonprofit organization are part of a criminal organization and aided migrant smugglers.
According to the organization’s 2016 balance sheet, submitted in June 2017, the general manager of ERCI had recorded expenses totaling 170,000 euros, which have been checked by financial auditing and consulting company PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Nothing came of the search.
Meanwhile, serious contradictions in depositions and testimonies seen by Kathimerini demand answers from the authorities on the eastern island of Lesvos who have expressed confidence that this is a clear-cut case. For example, a harbor master identified only by his initials N.P. had claimed in his deposition that there was a lack of communication between the NGO and the coast guard, saying that ERCI members were not keeping him or other coast guard officers informed about their activities. However, one of his colleagues, identified as S.G., who testified as a witness to Mytilene prosecutor Iliana Rapti on September 20, offered a different account. It should be noted that the witness in question is a risk analysis expert and local coordinator with European Patrol Network Operation Poseidon, a Frontex-led operation in the Aegean Sea.
“My agency was approached in the spring of 2016 by the ERCI NGO, which wanted to be included in the local emergency plan of the Mytilene Port Authority,” the witness said. “This is how we started working with that particular NGO. Like all other similar organizations, ERCI operated in consultation with my agency.”
He went on to say that at some later point, the NGO’s Lesvos chief N.K. – who was already in pre-trial custody over the same case on the island of Chios – told the harbor master and the testifying officer he could alert them to “approaching migrant boats and that he could inform us as soon as he received that information.” The two coast guard officers, according to the same witness, accepted the offer for such tip-offs, but also agreed that they had to find out where N.K. was getting his information from. He usually shared the information after the migrant boats had entered Greece’s territorial waters or were moving close to the maritime border.
It was as a result of the above that during the testimony of ERCI’s founder, P.M., the investigator adopted the prosecution’s position, namely that the port authority was indeed being briefed by an NGO but in a manner that was “not timely.”
The witness S.G., who testified on the type of information provided by the NGO, said that the island’s ERCI head at some point told him that the information came from a network called “Online Rescue Service” and its eastern Aegean branch, Aegean Boat Report. The Facebook pages of the two organizations are used to post and match information (news, images, geolocations) sent by people as they set off from Turkey’s western coast, with other relevant information being sent from Lesvos. A Norwegian activist identified as Tommy O., who was linked by the port official and one of the suspects to the two websites, appears to spend most of his time in Tromso, a town in northern Norway, and did not seem to have much to do with what was going on in Mytilene (Kathimerini tried unsuccessfully to reach him on the phone).
The indictment emphasizes the fact that the organization did not operate within the framework of local search and rescue operations. This alone however does not constitute a felony. That would require that the persons behind a human trafficking operation are motivated by economic profit.