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Greek court acquits aid workers who helped rescue migrants crossing in small boats

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — A Greek court on Tuesday acquitted a group of 16 aid workers and volunteers of charges connected with their efforts to rescue migrants making the dangerous sea crossing in small boats from neighboring Turkey.

The trial on the eastern island of Lesbos on espionage and other charges had attracted international scrutiny, with rights groups accusing Greece of targeting the defendants for their humanitarian work.

While arrivals have dropped in recent years, Lesbos remains a major landing point for migrants seeking a better life in Europe. On Tuesday the Greek coast guard said two people died when a small migrant boat was wrecked on a rocky shore there during an overnight storm. It said 57 survivors made it onto land, and one more person was reported missing.

Tuesday's court ruling followed a proposal by the prosecution for all the 16 defendants' acquittal, one of the defense lawyers, Haris Petsikos, told The Associated Press. The 16 defendants were acquitted of misdemeanor charges of espionage and assisting a criminal organization.

“The prosecutor clearly said that there was no proof any of the defendants did anything illegal,” he said. “And the court agreed.”

All had argued that they did nothing more than to assist people whose lives were at risk at sea.

“These charges should never have been brought,” Petsikos told media outside the courthouse just after the decision.

“Unfortunately it seems to be another case where actions of solidarity towards refugees are criminalized — and in a very harsh manner for the people in question,” he added.

The 16 people on trial Tuesday did not include two international volunteers, Syrian Sarah Mardini and German Sean Binder, who had been acquitted of the misdemeanour charges a year ago.

But they and the other 16 could still face other potential criminal charges, including facilitating illegal immigration and money laundering. Petsikos said he was confident all would be acquitted of any remaining charges, if they reach the court.

The defendants were arrested in 2018, and Mardini and Bender spent more than three months in jail before being released.

A former refugee, Mardini is a competitive swimmer whose sister Yusra Mardini was part of the refugee swimming team at the Olympic Games in 2016 and 2021.

Lesbos was the focus of the 2015 immigration crisis, when nearly a million people fleeing war, repression or poverty reached Europe, and large numbers of Greek and foreign aid workers set up operations there.