Following the Greek authorities’ annulment of misdemeanour charges facing humanitarian workers in Lesbos, EU lawmaker Grace O’Sullivan told EURACTIV the bloc’s new asylum and migration infrastructure must protect NGOs and search and rescue missions.

The trial of 24 humanitarian aid workers charged with crimes related to espionage and assisting smuggling networks began on the Greek island of Lesbos on Tuesday (10 January).

The final verdict was given on Friday, with charges annulled for all 22 foreign defendants due to procedural errors. The two Greek defendants will be referred back to a lower court to stand trial on charges of assistance of a criminal organisation and forgery.

“The outcome of today’s trial is essentially a fudge. Knowing that its case was built on extremely weak foundations with almost no evidence book to speak of, the prosecution aimed instead to drag the case out as long as possible,” O’Sullivan, a Green MEP for Ireland South who has been in Lesbos campaigning in support of her constituent and defendant Seán Binder, told EURACTIV.

“That said, it will bring some relief to the defendants who have been persecuted by these charges for over five years. They still face felony charges, which could drag on for ten more years if the prosecution use the same cowardly tactics,” said O’Sullivan.

The misdemeanour charges faced this week by the defendants for their activities in Greek waters in 2018 carry a statute of limitations of five years, meaning that Friday’s annulment in effect drops proceedings.

Under Greek law, however, felony charges carry a statute of limitations of 20 years. There is no indication from the Greek authorities what the timeline on bringing these charges to court might be, or which stage of the process they are at, Fenix, a humanitarian legal aid organisation monitoring the trial, told EURACTIV.


Hostile environment for civil society

“At the centre of a new asylum policy is the need to enshrine in law the protected role of NGOs and civil search and rescue missions,” O’Sullivan said.

In a statement on Thursday, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović said: “The hostile environment in which human rights defenders, civil society and journalists work in Greece has been an issue of concern for several years.”

“Targeting human rights defenders and individuals engaged in acts of solidarity is both incompatible with states’ international obligations and has a chilling effect on human rights work,” Mijatović continued.

The impact on civil society is clear, a representative of Fenix, which is based in Lesbos, told EURACTIV. “At the moment, there are no search and rescue missions in the Aegean Sea, which has led to an increase in deaths.”

“You can see that people are more careful speaking about certain issues […] it’s visible in everyday life.”

In September, the European Parliament and European Commission agreed on a roadmap committing to approve the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum – a series of files aimed at creating a harmonised EU approach to relocation – before the end of the current mandate in Spring 2024.

“I am hopeful that the EU is capable of building a better asylum and migration infrastructure to replace the so-called Dublin regime,” O’Sullivan said.

Under the Dublin Agreement, an asylum seeker must file an application in the first country – which includes EU member states, Iceland, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Norway – that they arrive in.

“However, while in Lesvos this week I saw where a lot of EU-funding is going currently: building closed refugee camps that resemble prisons, funding border patrols which make migration increasingly deadly, and Frontex operations which have been proven to repeatedly cover up illegal pushbacks,” the Green MEP continued.

In July, an investigation by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) found that EU border agency Frontex, under former executive Fabrice Leggeri, was complicit in Greek efforts to force boats crossing the Aegean Sea to turn back around to Turkey.

Migrant boat destroyed by Greeks

“Seán [Binder], Sarah [Mardini] and the others face another 10 years potentially of this. The outcome today seriously undermines the other charges they face. This is why we are calling for the Greek authorities to drop the charges and let humanitarians return to their vital work on the island,” O Sullivan concluded.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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