The hearing involving 24 volunteers and activists began on Tuesday on the Greek island of Lesvos, prompting OHCHR to warn of the “chilling effect” that it has had on other rights defenders, who’ve now halted their work in Greece and other European Union countries.
Those on trial were all associated with Emergency Response Centre International, or ERCI; between 2016 and 2018, the group helped more than 1,000 people to reach safety and provided survivors with medical and other assistance on Lesvos, OHCHR said.
Voice of reason
“I think it’s absolutely clear, that you have people who are in distress at sea, people who are on boats that may have capsized, or may have sunk; they are in the water and there is nobody to rescue them,” said UN rights office spokesperson, Liz Throssell.
“That is why we are saying that this trial, and trials like it, are absolutely concerning because they criminalise actions that save people’s lives.”
Speaking to journalists in Geneva, Ms. Throssell noted that those on trial included a Syrian refugee and foreign nationals, such as the Irish-German national, Sean Binder.
The OHCHR official explained that the defendants face charges that include several alleged misdemeanours related to the facilitation of migrant smuggling, and she welcomed the news on Friday that the prosecution had recommended the annulment of some of the accusations.
Today, there are no civil society rescue teams operating in Greek waters, Ms. Throssell reiterated, despite the fact that 492 migrants have either died or gone missing in the Eastern Mediterranean since 2021, according to the UN International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Similar trials of other rights activists have already taken place in a number of other EU countries including Hungary, Italy and Malta, the OHCHR official continued.
“The fact of saving lives, providing humanitarian help is crucial and it should never be criminalised by any State, and that is why in this particular case we are saying that that the charges against these defendants should be dropped,” she said.
IOM’s Missing Migrants project updates migrant fatalities in the region and has recorded nearly 1,700 deaths and disappearances on the Eastern Mediterranean sea route since 2014, including nearly 500 children.
Many of the victims are known to have come from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.