Seán Binder belongs to the band of committed humanitarians who rushed to Greece at the height of the refugee crisis. In other countries, and at other times, his idealism might have been celebrated.
But the 27-year-old law student, who has spent the past two years in London, is a man living in fear. Though forced to abandon volunteering, the German-born Irishman and his Syrian friend, Sarah Mardini, are perhaps the most famous aid workers in Greece, for all the wrong reasons: a criminal investigation has hung over their heads for the past three years.
“There’s nothing criminal, or heroic, about helping people in distress at sea,” he tells the Observer. “Legally and morally, it is the right thing to do.”
The activists have been accused of human trafficking, money laundering, fraud and espionage – the last charge based on allegations that, while on Lesbos, the Aegean island at the centre of refugee flows, they monitored coastguard radio channels and vessels to gain advance notification of the location of smugglers’ boats.
In an 86-page report, police also accuse them of being members of a criminal organisation that posed as an NGO with the aim of profiteering by bringing people illegally into Greece. The charges followed a six-month police inquiry: human rights groups championing the pair have called them “farcical”.
“It’s been a sword of Damocles,” Binder says. “As absurd as the charges may be, they cast a shadow over your life that makes it impossible to move on.”
On Sunday he flies to Athens before travelling on to Lesbos for a trial, four days later, that will see 22 other frontline volunteers also stand in the dock – a case described as emblematic for civil society activists facing unprecedented harassment across Europe. That hearing will mark the start of a judicial drama that could result in them spending 25 years behind bars.
“I’m terrified,” Binder readily admits, recalling the 106 days he spent in pre-trial detention before being permitted to post €5,000 bail and leave Greece. “I’ve had a taste of life in prison on Chios. It was all scabies and bed bugs with 17 of us packed in a cell. The police holding cells were even worse, the most awful place on earth; squalid, windowless rooms full of asylum seekers just there because authorities had nowhere else to put them.”
Binder was released on 5 December 2018. Hours later, Mardini, who also volunteered with the now defunct rescue group Emergency Response Centre International, was let out of Korydallos prison in Athens, Greece’s toughest jail. She was 23 at the time.
Mardini had become famous three years earlier, saving fellow refugees from seemingly certain death when their dinghy capsized after departing Turkey. Only three of the 20 people on board knew how to swim. Sarah and her sister Yusra, a competitive swimmer who would go on to participate in the Rio Olympics, jumped into the sea, pushing and pulling the boat until it reached Lesbos – a feat to be immortalised in a Netflix drama produced by the British director Stephen Daldry and due for release next year.
Thursday’s trial will focus on the accusations of espionage and the unlawful use of radio frequencies – considered misdemeanours under Greek law, punishable by up to eight years in prison.
Despite wanting to attend, Mardini learned on Friday that she would be tried in absentia after a judge refused to temporarily lift a seven-year travel ban barring her re-entry to Greece. A non-EU citizen, she has been deemed a liability to public safety.
“The inquiry into the felonies, which carry longer prison terms, is still ongoing,” says Zacharias Kesses, the lawyer heading the activists’ legal team in Athens. “This week, they’ll be put on trial for the baseless charge of using the encrypted application of WhatsApp to circulate information about migrant flows.” This is an extraordinary accusation, he says, when the data was publicly available and known to port police.
Given the severity of the charges, his legal team has approached the American and British bar associations for advice. “Both have studied the case file and concluded that there is no legal basis for the accusations, that they’re aimed more at deterring volunteers than an honest response to evidence of criminality.”
Aid workers, Kesses insists, are “easy targets” on frontline islands where there has been vast local pressure against NGOs widely perceived to be encouraging refugees to make the crossing from Turkey. “Some of the charges go back to 2016, when neither Seán nor Sarah were even in Greece,” the lawyer said. “It’s that absurd.”
Hundreds of volunteers have left the country for fear they could be next. Amnesty International says it considers the forthcoming case to be “particularly symbolic” at a time when not only has the climate towards NGOs become more hostile, but Greece itself is in the line of fire over alleged pushbacks of asylum seekers at its increasingly militarised land and sea borders.
“Human rights defenders across Europe are being criminalised and dragged through courts for helping refugees and migrants in need,” says Giorgos Kosmopoulos, a Brussels-based campaigner with the group who will be monitoring the trial. “Sarah and Seán should be role models for our societies but instead they risk spending the best years of their lives behind bars for simply doing the right thing.”
On Monday, a solidarity rally outside the Greek parliament will demand that the charges are dropped.
Binder, a trained diver before embarking on his legal studies, credits his heritage with his desire to make the world a better place. His father was a Vietnamese refugee who fled after the fall of Saigon to Germany, where he met Seán’s mother; his two grandmothers, “the first out couple in the west of Ireland”, did a lot of voluntary work.
If he has any hope, it is for “conclusion”, so that he can get on with his life. But he is also pragmatic.
“I haven’t bought a return ticket,” he says. “It could be over within hours. It could take months. We could be imprisoned. All I know is that anything, at this point, could happen.”