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Spaniards, Danes face Greece trafficking charges

© AFP | Spanish firefighters Manuel Blanco, Jose Enrique Rodriguez and Julio Latorre, charged along with two Danes, stand outside the courthouse ahead of their trial on the Greek island of Lesbos on charges of trafficking illegal migrants

MYTILENE (GREECE) (AFP) - 

Three Spanish firefighters and two Danish volunteers appeared in court Monday accused of trying to help illegal migrants enter Greece via the island of Lesbos.

The firefighters, from the southern Spanish city of Seville, took part in multiple refugee and migrant rescue missions in the Aegean.

All five accused were in court in the island capital of Mytilene along with supporters to hear the charges against them which could bring a jail term.

Andalusian regional justice minister Rosa Aguilar was among the Spanish delegation along with representatives of the city of Seville.

The five were arrested in January 2016 after rescues of migrants travelling from Turkey to Greece.

The Spaniards worked as volunteers for the association Proem-AID and the Danes for Team Humanity as they sought to aid thousands of migrants, mostly Syrians, risking their lives to reach Europe via Lesbos and other Greek islands.

"This trial is important because humanitarian assistance can not and should not be criminalised," one of the Danish defendants, Salam Aldin, told AFP.

Many fishermen from the small port of Sykaminia, one of the main landing sites for refugee boats at the time, were at the court to support Aldin.

The defendants "were only helping to save lives" while the Greek coastguard was overwhelmed, said a lawyer for the Spanish firefighters, Haris Petsikos.

The Spanish defendants met Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis in Madrid in early April, who tweeted the trio had undertaken "rescue and humanitarian aid" work.

In Madrid, Amnesty International on Monday issued a statement demanding the "withdrawal of the accusation of people trafficking against the Spanish volunteers who dedicated themselves to rescuing refugees."

"These three men were using their professional skills to prevent children, women and men from dying through drowning. They have done no ill nor committed any crime. The charges against them must be withdrawn," insisted Amnesty's regional director of migration coordination Maria Serrano.

- 'Moral confusion' -

Amnesty added bringing the five to court was "absurd" and showed "moral confusion by those who try to criminalise actions of solidarity and to intimidate the defenders of human rights."

The rights group, which said the five could face up to ten years in prison and expected a verdict by Wednesday, said efforts by NGOs to save lives should be defended and applauded.

According to one of the firefighters, Manuel Blanco, Greek coastguards arrested them after they returned from a rescue mission.

Some 5,100 migrants died in 2016 crossing the Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration.

More than a thousand migrants, including many children, drowned in 2015 and 2016 in the narrow stretch of sea separating the Turkish coast from the Aegean islands.

© 2018 AFP