Pieter Wittenberg (74), retired investment banker from the Drenthe village of Peest (near Assen), was one of many Dutch people who left for Greece at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015 and 2016. After his youngest son was killed in a traffic accident, he wanted to do something meaningful with his life. He decided to go to the Greek islands to devote himself to helping refugees who arrived there in boats.
Now Wittenberg and 23 other aid workers are on trial on the island of Lesbos on Thursday for people smuggling, espionage, and membership of a criminal organization. Like most of the suspects, Wittenberg worked for the Greek aid agency Emergency Response Center International (ERCI). It is an international group: Greeks, Germans, Syrians, a Swede, a Japanese, an Argentinian, an Irishman.
Wittenberg left the Netherlands for Greece last week. He faces ten to twenty-five years in prison. “I think I should go because I want to be there when I’m being judged. I don’t think I’m guilty. That’s why I have to be in court and show who I am. I need to be able to look the judges in the eye, and they me. I have to convince them that there is nothing wrong with what I did.”
On a lifeboat
An experienced sea sailor, Wittenberg was captain of an ERCI lifeboat from May to July 2016. Every night he and three colleagues sailed in an outboard speedboat along the south coast of Lesvos, to receive boats full of refugees and bring them safely ashore.
“We went out to sea around 11 o’clock at night, before no boats arrived,” recalls Wittenberg. “If we saw a boat, we wouldn’t take anyone on board. We kept our distance, handing out life jackets and saying, ‘Follow us. We will take you to a safe point where you can come ashore.” Because there were rocks and shallows that those people didn’t know about.”
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The 86-page police report states that Wittenberg and his co-defendants were members of a criminal organization masquerading as an NGO, with the aim of making a profit by smuggling people into Greece. “Completely unjustified,” says Wittenberg. “We have always stayed two miles away from the Turkish sea border. We handed over all those on board the boats we saw and brought ashore to the Greek Coast Guard.”
Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch call the charges ridiculous. In their view, the trial symbolizes a worrying trend: the increasing criminalization of humanitarian aid, not just in Greece but across Europe. Similar lawsuits have been filed in other European countries, such as in Italy against the crew of Iuventa, a rescue ship of the German organization Jugend Rettet.
“The misuse of the justice system by the Greek authorities to harass these aid workers appears to deter future rescue missions, which will only endanger lives,” said Bill Van Esveld of Human Rights Watch. “The shoddy investigation and absurd charges against people engaged in life-saving work smacks of politically motivated persecution.”
This seems to be a deterrent
Bill Van Esveld Human Rights Watch
Amnesty sees a connection with the stricter European migration policy. “European and national authorities are keen to stop migrants,” said Elisa De Pieri, author of last year’s publication report Punishing compassion: Solidarity on trial in Fortress Europe. “Because aid is said to have a pull effect on migrants, NGOs have faced numerous repressive measures in recent years to limit their work.”
According to De Pieri, the persecution of aid workers is only the most visible consequence of that policy. In the report, she covers lawsuits in Greece, Italy, Croatia, Malta, Spain, France, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. “Because the legal definition of people smuggling is rather vague in many countries, people can easily be prosecuted.”
The European Migration Directive also does not make a clear distinction between human smuggling and rescue work. That is why critics want the directive to be amended. “Humanitarian aid must be excluded from prosecution, because it is clear that it should not be punishable,” says MEP Tineke Strik (GroenLinks). “There has been a debate about this within the European Commission for some time, but it has not done anything about it so far.”
The lawsuit against Wittenberg and his 23 co-defendants is the largest of its kind in Europe. But it is not the first trial against aid workers on Lesvos. In 2018, three Spanish firefighters and two Danish volunteers were acquitted of similar charges. The judge did not consider it proven that the suspects were guilty of human smuggling and had the intention to commit a crime.
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Despite the acquittal, the Lesvos prosecutor opened a criminal investigation against ERCI for human smuggling three months later. Several employees were arrested, including the organization’s Greek director, Nassos Karakitsos. Police were also looking for Wittenberg. He was in the Netherlands at the time and later reported to the police. German-born Irishman Seán Binder and Syrian Sara Mardini were less fortunate. They were held in pre-trial detention for 106 days.
Binder gave in The Guardian to be “terrified” of disappearing behind bars again. “I got a taste of prison life in Chios,” he said of his stay in custody. “It was all mange and bed bugs with seventeen of us in a cell. The police cells were even worse, the worst place on earth: filthy rooms with no windows and full of asylum seekers just because the authorities had nowhere else to put them.”
Wittenberg draws hope from the fact that the earlier case ended in acquittal. “But I wouldn’t mind going to jail. If that’s the sacrifice I have to make, then so be it, because then it’s for a good cause. If I get 25, I’ll be in jail until I’m 99. I’m not getting that old. And it’s not about me, it’s about the bigger picture. I hope that our process contributes to the realization that aid is not punishable and that we are on a sliding scale.”
Before Wittenberg left for Lesvos on Friday evening, he had a nice day. His eldest son graduated cum laude in two master’s degrees. “Nota bene European administration, European law, and law.” The irony does not escape him. As an aid worker, he has seen the liberal human rights system built up in Europe after World War II crumble before his very eyes.
This is close to Wittenberg’s heart, also because of his family history. His Jewish father fled to the Netherlands just before the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. “After World War II, we drafted human rights. Now NGOs that stand up for those rights are being prosecuted. The goal is deterrence, so they can lock refugees in camps without anyone looking after them. Then it is done with human rights.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of November 18, 2021