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Artist Candice Breitz Calls for Refugee Aid Worker’s Release After 100-Day Imprisonment [UPDATED]

Since August, Sarah Mardini — a humanitarian aid worker who saved refugees bound for Greece by pulling their sinking dinghy ashore — has indefinitely languished in a prison outside Athens.

Still from “Love Story” (2016) featuring Sarah Mardini, 7-channel installation (images courtesy of Candice Breitz and KOW, Berlin)

Sarah Mardini has not left her prison, located outside of Athens, for more than 100 days. In late August, the humanitarian aid worker (who has volunteered her last two years to pulling sinking dinghies filled with refugees from the Aegean Sea) was detained by Greek officials and charged by authorities with “assisting illegally refugees to enter Greece, being a member of a criminal organization and espionage” alongside Seán Binder and Athanasios (Nassos) Karakitsos.

According to the trio’s legal team, Greek authorities have failed to produce concrete evidence to support their accusations, which could result in long-term imprisonment and a pre-trial detention period of up to 18 months.

An organization called Free Humanitarians has circulated an online petition — which has already received nearly 8,500 signatures — calling on the Greek government to release the aid workers. “State practices that criminalize EU citizens for their solidarity with migrants and refugees are intolerable,” the letter reads, “and risk our fundamental European values of justice, solidarity, and human rights.”

On November 28, South African artist Candice Breitz issued a call to action on Facebook in support of the detained humanitarians. The celebrated filmmaker has a personal relationship with Mardini, who participated in the artist’s critically-lauded “Love Story” (2016), a documentary recording the plights of refugees and asylum seekers as told by actors Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin.

The project, recently seen at the 2017 Venice Biennale, was a sharp critique of how celebrity culture often whitewashes news to make it more palatable for a general audience. The installation also included video testimony from six actual refugees — one of which was Mardini herself. (In late 2015, she boated across the Aegean Sea on a dinghy with her sister from Turkey to Greece as they fled violence in Syria, pushing the deflating vessel to the shores of Lesbos for more than three hours. The pair later received asylum in Berlin.)

“In criminalizing the efforts of humanitarians like Sarah, the Greek government — in cahoots with other European governments — sends out a message that is loud and clear: on the European coastline, saving lives is to be treated as a punishable crime,” Breitz wrote on Facebook. “The same ominous message that Trump sends out on the US–Mexican front as he calls for the use of lethal force against unarmed asylum-seekers. Asylum-seekers as dehumanized, populist fodder.”

Responding to an article on Mardini’s detainment in The Art Newspaper, the Greek embassy in London replied:

“While dealing with the refugee/migration crisis has been a challenge for the EU and mainly for its front line member-states, Greece has always acted in full respect of the relevant domestic, EU and international legislation. In particular, in view of the unprecedented pressure that the crisis has put on the small communities of several Greek islands, all state actors and the local communities, working together with many NGOs, have shown a humanitarian face embracing and sheltering with empathy and compassion innocent suffering people arriving ashore.”

The Greek embassy also said that the humanitarian workers’ case is “currently being dealt” with by the respective judicial authorities and that “no comment can been [sic] offered at this stage.” During this pre-trial phase, “any comment is not permitted by law and would be ill-advised also to safeguard the rights of the persons involved.”

According to a January 2018 report by Al Jazeera, more than 60,000 asylum seekers are now trapped in Greece due to sealed borders across the so-called Balkan route and an agreement struck between Turkey and the European Union. Statistics from United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) say that more than 170,317 people made the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea in 2017 — at least 3,081 died or went missing along the way.

UPDATE, 4:35 pm EST: According to Amnesty International, Sarah Mardini has been released on €5000 (~$5,700) bail. The human rights organization reports Sean Binder and two additional NGO members were also released. They are all charged with “being members of a criminal organization, espionage, as well as facilitating people smuggling.” They face up to 25 years’ imprisonment if convicted.

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