Greek Court Drops Espionage Charges Against Aid Workers

A Greek court dropped charges of espionage against two dozen aid workers on Friday, ending a trial that was widely criticized by human rights organizations and that illustrated the hard line some European countries are taking over migration.

Despite the decision by the court on the island of Lesbos, the defendants remain vulnerable to prosecution on more serious charges, including human smuggling and money laundering, as part of a continuing investigation.

Some defendants were upset that the trial would not go forward, saying that the decision was not a vindication for them but the result of procedural errors, and that they still faced judicial jeopardy.

“All we want is justice. We want this to go to trial,” one of the accused, Sean Binder, an Irish rescue diver, told reporters outside court on Friday. Noting that the outcome was not an exoneration, he said he feared more years of “waiting and errors.”

In addition to Mr. Binder, the 24 defendants included Sarah Mardini, a Syrian refugee turned activist. They had faced misdemeanor charges of espionage and forgery in the trial, which began on Tuesday. According to the indictment, the aid workers had unlawfully monitored Greek Coast Guard radio channels and vessels and used a vehicle with fake military license plates between 2016 and 2018, accusations that defense lawyers rejected as unsubstantiated.

The court effectively dropped the charges by ordering the annulment of the indictment, which defense attorneys had argued was full of inaccuracies and shortcomings. Because there is not enough time for prosecutors to issue a new indictment before the statute of limitations expires at the end of this month, the trial is effectively over.

(One defendant, the founder of the charity Emergency Response Center International, Panos Moraitis, will be tried on forgery charges in a separate trial.)

Clio Papapantoleon, a lawyer who represents Mr. Binder and Ms. Mardini, cautiously welcomed Friday’s ruling as a step toward “returning to the road of normality” but said the continuing investigation was keeping her clients in limbo. “We have no idea when it will come to trial,” she said.

Greece has been hardening its stance on charities working with migrants, which is in line with similar tactics in Italy. Human rights officials, in turn, are intensifying their opposition to the tactics.

One advocate, Nils Muiznieks, director of Amnesty International’s European office, said the criminal investigations in Greece should come to a halt.

Continuing efforts to investigate and prosecute the aid workers, “raises serious concerns about the true intentions of the authorities,” Mr. Muiznieks added, describing the case as “a textbook example of how the criminal justice system can be misused by the authorities to punish and deter the work of human rights defenders.”

Greece’s migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, did not respond to a request for comment as the criminal investigation into the defendants is continuing.

In comments to Greek television earlier in the day, he said that the authorities continue to cooperate with charities helping migrants but stressed that smuggling is a crime.

“Who should go to prison and who shouldn’t,” Mr. Mitarachi said, “is for the justice system to decide, not the government.”

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