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Case filed against Greece in Strasbourg Court over crackdown on humanitarian organisations

Following a two-and-a-half-year legal ordeal 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. (More on Salam’s show trial in Greece here)

The application filed with the Strasbourg court exposes the illegality of the Greek authorities’ crackdown on human rights defenders working to render assistance to persons in distress at sea. It challenges Greece’s abuse of power to arbitrarily prosecute and expose Mr Aldeen to a minimum ten years’ imprisonment, only to suspend his life-saving activities. The best evidence for the political extraneous considerations in prosecuting Salam is of course his complete acquittal.

Salam’s persecution, the brief submits, is part of an EU campaign to oust NGOs who are failing EU deterrence-based migration policies not to assist refugees at distress at sea. Such repressive measures, aimed ultimately at curbing unwanted maritime crossings, have been adopted as part of the implementation of the EU-Turkey “deal” of March 2016.

According to GLAN legal advisor Dr Violeta Moreno-Lax (Queen Mary University of London) “The Strasbourg Court has now the opportunity to condemn the growing trend in Greece and Europe of criminalising 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 (Sciences Po and Yale Law School) added: “The EU 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.”

Director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights Professor Siobhán Mullally said “This case raises important questions of European human rights law concerning the role of civil society in providing humanitarian assistance to people in distress. Civil society space is increasingly under threat in Europe. The Irish Centre for Human Rights was pleased to provide assistance in these legal proceedings to defend the role of humanitarian actors in search and rescue at sea."

GLAN filed the legal application, with support from the the Irish Centre for Human Rights and two independent Greek lawyers, Danai Papachristopoulou and Zoe Kasapi. Their submission used evidence compiled from Mr Aldeen’s dealings with the Greek courts and authorities, as well as reports from international and non-governmental organisations documenting the shift in policy in Greece and the European Union to criminalise rescue at sea.

Background to the case

Mr Aldeen’s prosecution is part of a targeted, repressive move against rescue NGOs in the EU. In recent years, especially since the outbreak of the “refugee crisis” in 2015, the EU environment surrounding sea rescue has become increasingly harsh and restrictive. This has included amendments to various laws in several Member States, including Greece, which has seen the introduction of additional registration and reporting formalities; instances of harassment and police intimidation; undue arrest and detention; and public smear campaigns in the press and social media. This has made it increasingly difficult for rescue NGOs to operate at sea, to the point that there are no longer any civil society organisations actively and publicly pursuing maritime rescue in Greece. This application, therefore, bears the potential of restoring the confidence of human rights defenders in the Mediterranean basin that their work will not result in criminalization.


Since arriving in Greece, after the body of Alan Kurdi was washed ashore in September 2015, Mr 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 14th when, around 2:30 am, the applicant 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 applicant and the rest of the crew were arrested. They were accused of attempted migrant smuggling.

On 16 January 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 authorisation 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, equally unwarranted, restrictive measures were imposed on the applicant, while the boat and the rescue equipment on board were confiscated.

Although the Court of Appeal acquitted the applicant 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 2 years, and for which the Greek authorities are responsible, has not been remedied.

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