(CN) — A group of lawyers accused Greek authorities on Thursday of violating human-rights laws when they arrested a man in 2016 for trying to help asylum-seekers at sea reach Europe’s shores.
The Global Legal Action Network, or GLAN, said it filed a petition at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, this morning, challenging the arrest of Salam Kamal-Aldeen.
Aldeen became a high-profile case after he and other volunteers were arrested in January 2016. Aldeen, an Iraqi-Danish citizen, was charged with attempted human smuggling for his rescue work in the Aegean Sea.
The petition before the Strasbourg court opens up a new legal front in a multifaceted fight between human rights advocates and European authorities over how to handle asylum-seekers fleeing war, persecution, hardship and poverty in Africa and the Middle East.
In recent years, European authorities have sought to stop nongovernmental groups from doing rescue work in the Mediterranean Sea, claiming their presence encourages asylum-seekers to embark for Europe.
Some politicians, such as Italy’s anti-immigrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, even accuse NGOs of being in league with human traffickers. Since 2015, humanitarian vessels have been blocked from working in the Mediterranean and crews have been charged in Greece, Italy and Malta.
But human rights groups say these humanitarian vessels plying the Mediterranean are doing vital rescue work that European nations fail to do. They point to how the crackdown on humanitarian ships has led to a rising number of deaths at sea even as the number of asylum-seekers has fallen.
“The victims of their policies are tens of thousands asylum-seekers in distress at sea,” Omer Shatz, a lecturer at Yale Law School and adviser on the case, said in a statement. “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 case of Aldeen, then, is seen as pivotal in challenging the strategy of accusing NGOs of criminal behavior for helping asylum-seekers.
“The Strasbourg court has now the opportunity to condemn the growing trend in Greece and Europe of criminalizing solidarity,” said Violeta Moreno-Lax, a senior law lecturer at Queen Mary University of London and GLAN adviser.
She added that rescuing people in distress at sea is not a crime but “a binding duty under international law.”
She said the petition to the European Court of Human Rights, known as an application, will not be publicly available until Greece has been formally notified.
The Greek government did not immediately respond to an email query seeking comment Thursday.
Aldeen founded a rescue group called Team Humanity on the island of Lesbos at the height of Europe’s refugee and immigration crisis in 2015.
At 2:30 am on Jan. 14, 2016, Aldeen got a message about dinghies in the Aegean Sea with asylum-seekers aboard that were in distress, GLAN said.
He alerted the Hellenic Coast Guard and then went out with his vessel. Later that night, the dinghies with asylum-seekers were intercepted by Turkish authorities and when the Greek coast guard came across the Team Humanity vessel, it escorted the boat to port and arrested Aldeen and other volunteers with him. They were accused of attempted smuggling of illegal immigrants. The Team Humanity vessel was confiscated.
A Greek court of appeals acquitted them in May 2018. Aldeen faced 10 years in prison.
GLAN said in a statement that Aldeen continues to suffer “moral and material damage … due to the ordeal he was put through for more than two years, and for which the Greek authorities are responsible.”
The attorneys said the case “challenges the reliance by Greece on sanctions and anti-smuggling regulations to bring solidarity-based humanitarian action to a halt.”
The group said their case against Greece also relies on reports from international and nongovernmental organizations “documenting the shift in policy in Greece and the European Union to criminalize rescue at sea.”
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)