He went to Greece to stop migrants from drowning. Now he's in court, facing prison
Arrests are 'chilling message' to humanitarian groups, says Human Rights Watch
Update: Friday Jan. 13, 2023: Espionage charges against Seán Binder and 23 other volunteers were dropped Friday, according to RTÉ News, after the prosecution acknowledged serious issues with the case. The volunteers still face felony charges, separate from this week's trial, but no court date has been set.
Original story below.
Trained rescue diver Seán Binder travelled to Greece six years ago, to help migrants and refugees who got into distress making the perilous Mediterranean crossing to Europe.
But within a year, he and another volunteer were arrested over what he described as an accusation that they were spies, who were caught "in a stolen military jeep trying to infiltrate a naval base to steal state secrets."
"I thought, that's pretty impressive, but this must be a joke. I've done nothing of the sort," said the Irishman, who joined humanitarian efforts in 2017 because he thought he had the practical water safety skills to help.
Binder was a volunteer with the Greek NGO Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI), a search-and-rescue organization that has since disbanded. He was arrested by Greek authorities in Feb. 2018, and now faces charges of espionage, forgery, trafficking and being part of a criminal organization. None of the charges have been proven in court; the trial started Tuesday.
I was handcuffed to murderers, all because I provided some very basic search and rescue.- Seán Binder
He spent three and a half months in pre-trial detention in 2018, before being released on €5,000 ($7,200 Cdn) bail, to await trial.
"I was handcuffed to murderers, all because I provided some very basic search and rescue to people who have a fundamental right to receive it," Binder told The Current's Matt Galloway.
He said that at the time, ERCI had two search-and-rescue boats and a medical clinic in operation, but while the operation may sound dramatic, he "did very little" for the most part.
"I offered perhaps a smile and a warm blanket to someone … fleeing the kinds of conflict that I could never dream of surviving," he said.
"That's what's so frightening, because if I can be criminalized for handing out a bottle of water … then it will be a criminal act when you hand out a bottle of water, or show the smallest gesture of kindness to people."
Charges baseless, should be dropped: Amnesty
Binder is among two dozen volunteers on trial. Among them is Sarah Mardini, a Syrian refugee who herself survived a hazardous sea crossing with her sister, who went on to swim at the Olympics.
This week's trial concerns charges of espionage and forgery, which carry penalties of up to eight years in prison. The court in Greece is expected to decide Friday whether the trial should continue.
There is also an ongoing investigation into charges of assisting smuggling networks, membership of a criminal organization and money laundering, which carry sentences of up to 20 years.
Amnesty International has called all the charges baseless, calling for them to be dropped.
The Current asked the Greek embassy in Canada for comment on the case and charges, but did not receive a response.
Binder said he has proof to dispel many of the charges. For accusations that he helped people enter the country illegally, he said he can show that in half of those cases he had not yet arrived in Greece. He also said he has proof that he and other volunteers were in contact with local authorities, co-ordinating efforts to bring people ashore safely, and even offering training.
He said that in an ideal world, there would be no need for search-and-rescue operations, because nobody would be drowning. In a better world, he thinks official authorities would step up to the task.
"But in the world that we live in, unfortunately, it was 20-something-year-olds like myself who had to train some of these officers how to do basic CPR," he said.
He finds that "deeply troubling," arguing that "we have a responsibility to protect people who are at risk of drowning."
"That's really what this all boils down to. No one should be abandoned to die."
Safe routes stop smuggling: Binder
This court case is intended to send "a chilling message" to humanitarian organizations, said Giulia Tranchina, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who looks at migration and asylum in Europe.
"[It's] to deter them, scare them, to make sure they stop helping, rescuing and providing basic acts of solidarity and humane assistance to vulnerable refugees," she said.
She added that the charges "perversely misrepresent" search-and-rescue operations as illegal people smuggling rings.
Binder pointed out that legally, a refugee must be in their would-be host country to claim asylum — but with land borders closed, desperate people have little choice but to make perilous crossings by sea.
"If we truly want to stop smuggling, as I believe we should, then let's provide safe routes for asylum," he said.
Italy's new rules 'completely inhumane': aid worker
In neighbouring Italy, legislation introduced last week has also affected how these organizations operate. Ships must now report to a port after a single rescue — rather than staying out at sea to conduct further rescues if needed. The ships are assigned specific ports to dock at, some of which are very far away from where they conduct rescues.
Caroline Willemen, deputy head of mission for search and rescue with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), said the rules are making rescues "more complicated than they have to be."
Willemen was aboard Geo Barents, a MSF rescue ship, when it docked at Ancona Thursday, with 73 rescued people. Ancona is on Italy's central eastern coast — about three days away from Sicily, where ships previously docked. MSF requested a closer dock, but was denied.
"People had to sail an additional four days in incredibly bad weather, people were very sick," said Willemen.
- Q&AItaly refuses to allow some migrants rescued in Mediterranean Sea to disembark ships, says charity group
She said the move was "completely inhumane … cruel and unnecessary," adding that it would have been much faster for the migrants to dock in the south and travel to Ancona by bus.
"None of this will deter people from getting in those boats … they are fleeing torture, they're fleeing the most horrible abuses you have ever heard about," she said.
"They will keep coming. If we are not there to rescue them, they will be taken back to Libya or they will drown. And that's the reality that we're facing."
Audio produced by Ben Jamieson, Joana Draghici and Niza Lyapa Nondo.