Written by Staff Writer, CNN Athens, Greece
Aid workers working in Greece have faced trial after allegedly using Facebook and other online platforms to recruit refugees to a clandestine sea rescue operation.
The workers — who include volunteers, offshore rescue boats and public officials in Greece — are accused of using criminal methods and illegal communication methods to recruit potential rescuers and hinder rescue operations.
Greece has not had an official coast guard for almost a decade but a Greek private fleet operates fishing boats, helicopters and boats around its islands to rescue refugees trying to cross from Turkey into Greece.
Traffickers in the region have a long record of kidnapping and abusing refugees.
Greece’s coast guard deny the charges, saying its vessels tend to work more closely with non-Greek boats operating off the coast.
The rescue operation involves a number of volunteers, and the gang is thought to operate along the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean coasts, including Albania and Greece.
On Monday, 22 members of the group are due to go on trial. Greece’s Supreme Court in Athens issued arrest warrants for 11 of the 16 other accused last year and 18 more in September, according to local media reports.
Speaking to CNN from Greece, the leader of the group, Nikos Yiannostakos, says the trial is an attempt to undermine his group’s lifesaving work.
“Our organizations are willing to cooperate with Greek authorities and the sea police on receiving human lives at sea and cooperating with them in cases in which we’re required to intervene but not illegal activities like picking up migrants as suspected,” Yiannostakos said.
“Our organizations are regarded by the courts as a criminal organization and in the opinion of the Supreme Court, the land forces on the sea have a better solution to deal with human trafficking and the smuggling on the seas,” he added.
Yiannostakos has previously highlighted the potential threat to innocent people at sea, bringing one “disembarkation platform” to the Greek island of Kefalonia in 2015. The small yacht carrying 39 passengers had arrived safely on the shore but was detained by authorities and searched by military officers, some of whom were armed.
Police then found weapons onboard, including a rifle and a pistol that were found hidden in the engine compartment.
The accused face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Several asylum seekers were also wounded in April this year when a boat that had been docked at the island of Eleftheria exploded after activists began an unannounced boarding in the morning.
The defense team will argue Monday that the boat could have exploded due to sabotage, although no alleged perpetrators have been named.
Yiannostakos says he is planning further public hearings to raise awareness about the cases to help influence the case.
“We are the only bodies there to receive people at sea who have just landed on the islands in boats, to get them in to a hospital for safety, and to take them to refugee camps,” he said.
“We are faced with a system whose only purpose is to impede our life saving work.”