A 27-year-old Kerry man is due to go on trial today in Greece facing charges of people smuggling, membership of a criminal organisation and espionage.
Seán Binder from Castlegregory is one of 24 people charged in connection with their humanitarian work. He denies all charges but could face 25 years in jail.
He was arrested in Lesbos in 2018 while volunteering for the NGO, Emergency Response Center International. He spent more than 100 days locked up in a Greek prison before being released on bail in December 2018 following a campaign by his family, friends and human rights organisations.
He returned home to Kerry that Christmas and has been waiting trial since then. This week the former student of Gaelcholaiste Chiarraí flew to Greece to face charges. His family and friends are deeply concerned that he could receive the maximum sentence as part of a government campaign to intimidate humanitarian NGOs working with migrants on the Greek coast.
Mr Binder was born in Germany and moved to Ireland at the age of five. He studied at Trinity College in Dublin before taking on a Masters in International Relations at the London School of Economics.
Mr Binder said he, like many people around the world, was moved by the images of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose body washed up on a Turkish beach while he and his family were trying to reach Greece and in 2017 travelled to Lesbos to work with a charity.
More than 60 MEPs have written an open letter in support of Mr Binder and his co-defendants.
MEP for Ireland South, Grace O’Sullivan, said in Brussels in recent weeks that the charges should be dropped.
“I am proud to be joined today by so many MEPs from across political parties to bring public pressure on EU governments such as Greece to change their policies towards humanitarian workers and ultimately drop the charges against Seán and his colleagues.”
An online petition at change.org has also been signed by almost 18,000 urging the Greek Authorities to drop the charges.
The charges against him have been heavily criticised by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Frontline Defenders, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders and many others.
The 24 people affiliated with the Emergency Response Center International (ERCI), a nonprofit search-and-rescue group that operated on Lesbos from 2016 to 2018, face up to eight years in prison when the trial begins on Thursday.
They also face felony charges including people smuggling, belonging to a criminal group and money laundering, which carry 25-year prison sentences.
Amnesty International's European director Nils Muiznieks said the charges were "farcical".
"This emblematic case demonstrates how far the Greek authorities will go to deter people from helping refugees and migrants," he said in a statement.
Human Rights Watch called the trial "politically motivated".
Among those to be tried is Sarah Mardini, a Syrian refugee who took an overcrowded dingy to Greece with her sister Yusra in 2015, at the height of Europe's refugee crisis, and saved the other 19 passengers by pulling their sinking boat to shore for four hours.
Yusra went on to compete with the Refugee Olympic Team at the 2016 Games, and is a UN goodwill ambassador.
Sarah Mardini, who now lives in Germany, has been barred from re-entering Greece and will represented by a lawyer.
"It's mind boggling why someone cannot attend their own trial," said Giorgos Kosmopoulos, a senior campaigner for Amnesty, calling on authorities to drop the charges during a solidarity protest outside Greek parliament.
Mr Binder, a rescue diver, said he had only intended to volunteer for a while.
"It wasn't my plan to spend the rest of my life doing this, to be some kind of champion," he said.
"If you saw someone drowning you would do the same as me, you would reach out a hand, pull them out, and that's the exact same crime that I'm accused of doing."