Greece absurd trial against rescuers

In the run-up to the trial on 10 January 2023 against 24 rescue workers, including Dutchman Pieter Wittenberg, German-Irish Seán Binder and Syrian Sarah Mardini (about whose story the Netflix film The swimmers is based), Amnesty International reiterates its call on the Greek authorities not to criminalize aid to refugees and to drop the charges.

Seán Binder, a German-Irish trained diver, Sarah Mardini, a Syrian refugee, and Pieter Wittenberg, who worked as a lifeboat skipper, are on trial along with 21 other volunteers from a recognized civil society organization. They are being prosecuted on unjust and baseless charges simply for helping refugees and migrants drowning at sea.

‘Saving people is not a crime’

“Sarah and Seán did what any of us would do if we were in their position. Helping people at risk of drowning on one of Europe’s deadliest sea lanes is not a crime, says Nils Muižnieks of Amnesty International. “This process shows how the Greek authorities will go to great lengths to discourage humanitarian aid and to discourage migrants and refugees from seeking safety on the country’s shores, something we see in a number of European countries. It is absurd that this process takes place at all. All charges against the rescuers must be dropped immediately.”

Possible long prison sentences

After Mardini and Binder were arrested in August 2018, they spent more than 100 days in jail before being released on bail. The upcoming trial will include charges of espionage and forgery, which carry up to eight years in prison. Mardini and Binder are also under investigation based on unfounded charges of human trafficking, fraud, membership of a criminal organization and money laundering, which carry a maximum sentence of 20 years. The research has now been going on for more than 4 years.

“The sentence that could hang over my head is 20 to 25 years,” says Pieter Wittenberg himself in his interview with Amnesty. He says of the summons: ‘It said we were on the beach with binoculars, as if it could be a criminal offence. It is now developing in the process, the case is being filled up, and you can see that the Greek court is dead serious about it. And that the 20 to 25 years are actually hanging over your head. I can’t say I count on it, but I hope we’ll be acquitted. Because in the end, it cannot be the case that if you try to save and help people, it can be punishable.’

Dagmar Oudshoorn, director of Amnesty Holland: ‘Fortunately, there are brave people who take action when they see people in need. They do not deserve a prison sentence, but all our support. So people in Europe continue to lend a helping hand to other people in need rather than looking away for fear of reprisals or because it’s happening far away.’


Peter Wittenberg

Dutchman Pieter Wittenberg traveled to Lesbos in 2016. As an experienced skipper, he wanted to help refugees at sea. He guided boats with refugees and migrants safely to shore. He also distributed clothes and food.

Sarah Martini

Originally from Syria, Sarah arrived in Lesvos in 2015 as a refugee. After the engine of the boat she was traveling on failed, Sarah and her sister Yusra rescued eighteen fellow passengers by pushing the sinking boat ashore. Yusra competed for Team Refugees at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The sisters’ story was the inspiration for the Netflix film The swimmers. Sarah returned to Greece in 2016 and started volunteering in a Greek NGO where she met Seán. She now lives and studies in Berlin.

Sean Binder

Seán Binder, a German citizen who grew up in Ireland, is a certified diver who rescued migrants and refugees from the sea off the coast of Lesvos, Greece. He currently works in London.

The trial, which will be held on January 10, 2023 at the Court of Appeal in the North Aegean Islands of Lesvos, had previously been postponed for procedural reasons to November 2021. The trial is expected to take weeks or possibly months.

Read here the Amnesty report Europe: Punishing compassion: Solidarity on trial in Fortress Europe on the persecution of people who came to the aid of refugees and migrants. Listen to the podcast here, where Seán Binder tells his story.

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