LESBOS, Greece (AP) — A group of 24 volunteers who took part in migrant rescue operations went on trial Thursday on the Greek island of Lesbos on smuggling-related charges in a case that has been strongly criticized by international human rights groups.
The Greek and international volunteers include the Syrian-born competitive swimmer Sara Mardini, whose sister Ysra Mardini, was part of the refugee swimming team at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and Tokyo earlier this year.
The volunteers, including many who spent several months in pre-trial detention, face a range of charges including misdemeanor counts of espionage-related offenses, illegal access to state communications and assisting criminal activity.
They deny any wrongdoing, maintaining that they simply wanted to help save lives when the island of Lesbos was overwhelmed by refugee and migrant arrivals from nearby Turkey.
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other rights groups say the charges should be dropped.
“The charges perversely misrepresent the group’s search-and-rescue operations as a smuggling crime ring,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement ahead of the trial.
More than a million migrants and refugees, many escaping war in Iraq and Syria, traveled to Lesbos and other Greek islands from Turkey in 2015-16, with most moving on to Germany and other European Union countries.
The Greek government has taken a tougher line with illegal and irregular migration in recent years, intercepting boats at sea and extending a steel wall along its land border with Turkey. It denies frequent allegations by migrant advocacy groups that it carries out summary deportations, also known as pushbacks.