A Greek court has dropped espionage charges against a group of aid workers who rescued migrants at sea, in a move that has been applauded by rights groups and lawmakers.
A court on the island of Lesbos on Friday overturned Irish-German national Sean Bender and 23 other humanitarian workers, misdemeanor charges, however criminal charges against the group remain pending.
Bender’s lawyer, Zacharias Kissas, told the court that the court in the island’s capital, Mytilene, had asked to stop prosecuting some misdemeanor charges due to “procedural irregularities” in the investigation.
“They realized there were some procedural irregularities that made it impossible for the court to proceed with the substance of the accusation, so in terms of misdemeanours, anyone could say the charges were dropped,” Kesas said.
“But we can’t be too happy about this because they really understand what we’ve been screaming about for the last four years, so there’s still a lot of things that need to be done to get to the last step which is the crimes are still ongoing, the investigation is still ongoing.”
A statement issued by Amnesty International on Friday said the Lesbos court had “returned the indictment back to the public prosecutor due to procedural shortcomings, including the failure to translate the indictment”.
Binder and Syrian refugee Sarah Mardini were arrested in 2018 after participating in several search and rescue operations with the nonprofit Emergency Response Center near the Aegean island of Lesbos.
The group faced four charges that Greek judicial authorities classified as “misdemeanours”: espionage, disclosure of state secrets, illegal use of radio frequencies and forgery, according to a statement from the UN human rights office.
The court’s move has been welcomed by rights groups and politicians.
EU lawmakers said it was “a step towards justice”.
A spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Liz Throssell, welcomed the court’s recommendation to drop some charges, but reiterated the UN’s call for “all charges against all defendants” to be dropped.
Pender’s elected representative, Rep. Grace O’Sullivan, said the allegation was “full of holes” in a video posted to Twitter.
Good news from Greece. We have just heard that Sean Bender and the other humanitarian search and rescue workers have had their charges dropped.”
Amnesty International said in a statement that while the misdemeanor charges were dropped on Friday, an investigation into the criminal charges against the humanitarian workers remains pending.
Aid workers face charges of aiding smuggling networks, being members of a criminal organization, and money laundering – charges that could lead to up to 25 years in prison if found guilty, according to a European Parliament report published in June 2021.
Referring to the criminal charges still pending, O’Sullivan said that while he didn’t know how long that would take, “today is actually a step in the right direction. A step towards justice.”
“All we want is justice. We want to go to trial and it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen any time soon given what happened today,” Binder said outside the courtroom.
“At the same time, we have been very fortunate to have had so much international support, everywhere, and I think that has forced the prosecution of this court to at least acknowledge the wrongs that were done, and at least to some extent there has been less injustice.”