The Council of Europe, the continent’s human rights body, has criticized Greece for criminalizing NGOs and individuals assisting refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants.
As the trial of a Syrian refugee and competitive swimmer whose story inspired the Netflix film The Swimmers is set to begin on the island of Lesvos, the Council’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović issued a statement on Thursday condemning “the hostile environment in which human rights defenders, civil society and journalists work in Greece.”
Mijatović notes that this has been a trend in Greece over the last few years.
“Smear campaigns targeting individuals defending human rights, cumbersome NGO registration procedures and undue pressure on journalists have undermined the protection of human rights and shrunk the civic space in the country,” Mijatović said.
Council blasts decision by Greece to prosecute NGOs helping refugees
Mijatović also condemned the prosecutions of twenty-four volunteers of a search and rescue NGO who are on trial on Lesvos. Sarah Mardini, a prominent human rights worker, is one of twenty-four aid workers and volunteers on trial due to charges of human smuggling. It is a case that human rights groups have widely criticized.
Mardini fled Syria with her sister, Yusra Mardini, who competed in the refugee swimming team at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and in Tokyo in 2021.
The sisters were once among Syria’s most promising swimmers. Still, they found themselves swimming for their lives after jumping off an inflatable boat that started sinking while unsafely transporting refugees to Greece.
The volunteers were initially detained in 2018 for several months on suspicion of human trafficking, but the charges facing the group in Lesvos involve espionage, illegal access to state communications, money laundering, and assisting criminal activity.
Police said in 2018 that the volunteers had collected information about refugee flows from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands of Lesbos and Samos and provided direct assistance to organized trafficking groups.
“Targeting human rights defenders has a chilling effect on rights”
Mijatović is not convinced and notes that “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.”
Earlier in the week, a Somali migrant sentenced to 142 years in prison in Greece for human trafficking had his sentence overturned after receiving legal support from EU lawmakers.
Mohammed Hanad Abdi received the verdict after his capture off the coast of Lesvos in 2021.
On Monday, however, 28-year-old Abdi appeared in court to appeal what he called a wrongful conviction. During the appeal today, the 142-year sentence was reduced to eight after which Abdi was released for time served and good behavior.