Case filed Against Greece Over Migrant Rescue NGO Crackdown

Credit: GLAN
Credit: GLAN

Published Apr 24, 2019 9:01 PM by The Maritime Executive

Following a two-and-a-half-year legal battle in Greek courts, Salam Kamal-Aldeen, founder of the non-profit Team Humanity has filed an unprecedented application with the European Court of Human Rights challenging Greece’s crackdown on NGOs rescuing refugees at sea. 

The application filed with the Strasbourg Court challenges the legality of the Greek authorities’ crackdown on people working to render assistance to persons in distress at sea, in particular Greece's power to prosecute and expose Kamal-Aldeen to a minimum 10 years’ imprisonment, thus suspending his life-saving activities. The best evidence for the political extraneous considerations in prosecuting Kamal-Salam is his complete acquittal, says Team Humanity.

Kamal-Salam’s persecution, the brief submits, is part of an E.U. campaign to oust NGOs who are failing E.U. deterrence-based migration policies not to assist refugees at distress at sea. These measures, aimed ultimately at curbing unwanted maritime crossings, have been adopted as part of the implementation of the E.U.-Turkey “deal” of March 2016, according to Global Legal Action Network (GLAN).

GLAN legal advisor Dr. Violeta Moreno-Lax said: “The Strasbourg Court has now the opportunity to condemn the growing trend in Greece and Europe of criminalizing solidarity. Rescue is not a crime; it is a binding duty under international law. Humanitarian assistance of persons in distress at sea should never be prosecuted. Attacking civil society constitutes an assault on the main values of democracy. Rescuers should instead be celebrated and protected as selfless guarantors of the most basic human rights.”

GLAN legal advisor Omer Shatz added: “The E.U. and its Member States are targeting rescue NGOs, but the victims of their policies are tens of thousands asylum seekers in distress at sea. Mass killing of civilians by drowning, pushing survivors back to camps they fled from, preventing their disembarkation at safe ports are not only human rights violations, they are crimes for which GLAN will continue to pursue accountability. The Strasbourg Court should find the persecution by prosecution strategy to be incompatible with the fundamental principles of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

The U.K.-based charity Human Rights at Sea has issued a statement saying it fully supports this effort to bring a change to the trend of criminalization of solidarity and humanitarian search and rescue which remains a binding duty under international law. 

Background provided by GLAN

Since arriving in Greece, after the body of Alan Kurdi was washed ashore in September 2015, Salam Kamal-Aldeen has worked to promote the rights of refugees on Lesbos. With Team Humanity, he has routinely contributed to operational efforts by the Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG), participating in over 150 missions, rescuing up to 200 persons a day.  

Although their cooperation ran smoothly until January 2016, things changed on January 14 when, around 2:30 am, Kamal-Aldeen received a message about a boat in distress carrying asylum-seekers in the area near the Mytilene airport. No coordinates were provided. He immediately reached out to his crew and prepared to deliver assistance, notifying the HCG. The aim was to locate the boat in distress and remain nearby until the HCG arrived; they would intervene only in case of imminent danger. Not knowing the exact location of the shipwreck, they spent some time searching. Unable to locate any boat within Greek territorial waters, they finally decided to change course and return towards Lesbos.

Meanwhile, the HCG had been informed of the presence of adrift boats with migrants at 1:05 am and had given an order to one of its vessels for a rescue operation. The HCG vessel located two adrift boats within Turkish territorial waters at 1:50 and 1:55 am, notified the Central HCG and remained nearby until the boats were retrieved by the Turkish Coast Guard (TCG). The third adrift boat was located at 2:00 am within Turkish territorial waters and was also recovered by the TCG. Around 3:10 am, the HCG located the Team Humanity boat and escorted it back to port, where the crew were arrested. They were accused of attempted migrant smuggling.

On January 16, 2016, the Investigating Judge confirmed the charge, in its aggravated form, on the basis of the applicant “having decided to commit” jointly with the other defendants “with decision and intent” and “as a repeated crime” the felony of illegal transport of irregular migrants into Greek territory without authorization in the degree of tentative, frustrated only by the intervention of the HCG. No proof was adduced, the Judge referring to their use of “rescue as a pretext” to perpetrate the crime. In addition, several restrictive measures were imposed on the applicant, while the boat and the rescue equipment on board were confiscated.

Although the Court of Appeal acquitted Kamal-Aldeen in May 2018, the moral and material damage he has endured and continues to experience through the ordeal he was put through for more than two years, and for which the Greek authorities are responsible, has not been remedied, says GLAN.