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The 1st trial begins for volunteers who helped migrants in Greece


All right, to Greece now, where two aid workers who helped refugees on the island of Lesbos are set to go on trial tomorrow. The pair faces years in jail. They're the first of more than 20 volunteers facing charges that include spying and smuggling. Rights groups call those charges ridiculous and politically motivated. Joanna Kakissis reports from Athens.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Law student Sean Binder flew to the Greek island of Lesbos in 2017 because he wanted to help the Coast Guard rescue refugees at sea.

SEAN BINDER: As a teenager growing up in Ireland, I became a rescue diver. I spent a lot of time on boats. I'm a confident swimmer. And so I felt, you know, I have some skills and certification that might mean that I can provide some kind of help.

KAKISSIS: Binder, whose own father is a refugee from Vietnam, signed up with Emergency Response Center International, a Greek search and rescue nonprofit that worked closely with local authorities.

BINDER: You know, there is a gap here that civilian search and rescue has to fill because if it isn't filled, asylum-seekers will fall through it, and they will drown.

KAKISSIS: On Lesbos, he befriended another volunteer, Sarah Mardini, who knows firsthand how dangerous crossing the sea can be.


SARAH MARDINI: It's August 2015. I find myself in an overcrowded dinghy, pushing off from the coast of Turkey, along with my sister, Yusra, and 18 other refugees from the Syrian Civil War.

KAKISSIS: That's Mardini speaking in Munich this summer.


MARDINI: Just 15 minutes into the journey, the boat started taking on water. And the sea is rough.

KAKISSIS: Mardini and her younger sister, Yusra, jumped into the sea and pulled their sinking ship to Lesbos. The sisters now live in Germany. Netflix is turning their story into a movie. Mardini says she returned to Lesbos to help fellow refugees. In late 2018, she and Binder were called into a local police station. They waited for hours before an officer showed up.

BINDER: And at that moment, they handcuffed Sarah and me together. And suddenly, we are being charged with these incredibly heinous crimes - being part of a criminal organization, smuggling, money laundering, forgery, fraud, now that we are spies.

KAKISSIS: They spent weeks in pretrial detention in squalid jails infested with bedbugs. Binder has returned for the trial, but Greek authorities have barred Mardini from attending.

ZACHARIAS KESSES: You don't need to be a lawyer to understand that this ban's a significant breach of your right to protect yourself.

KAKISSIS: That's Greek lawyer Zacharias Kesses, who is representing Binder and Mardini. He says the charges against them are based on speculation and innuendo.

KESSES: So if you are looking for the evidence, there is nothing.

KAKISSIS: And that's why it's so frightening, says Bill Van Esveld of Human Rights Watch.

BILL VAN ESVELD: The charges are crazy. Fundraising for an NGO is money laundering. Helping people not die at sea is criminal trafficking. Looking for boats in distress so people don't drown is espionage. Like, it's the biggest criminalization of solidarity in Europe right now.

KAKISSIS: Tomorrow's case is not unique. In the last five years, European governments have initiated dozens of investigations and legal proceedings against search and rescue volunteers helping migrants.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICHAGOF KID'S "IN JUNGLE TOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.