Syrian refugee Sarah Mardini whose story inspired Netflix drama The Swimmers goes on trial in 'farcical' human smuggling case

A Syrian refugee and competitive swimmer whose story inspired a Netflix film has gone on trial in a smuggling-related case after participating in migrant rescue operations on a Greek island.

Sarah Mardini, a prominent human rights worker, is one of 24 aid workers and volunteers on trial in the case which has been widely-criticised by human rights groups.

Mardini fled Syria with her sister, Yusra Mardini, who competed in the refugee swimming team at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and in Tokyo in 2021.

The sisters were once among Syria's most promising swimmers but found themselves swimming for their lives after jumping off an inflatable boat that started taking on water while carrying refugees to Greece.

Their harrowing escape from their war-torn homeland inspired the 2022 Netflix drama The Swimmers.

The trial of Mardini and her co-defendants over smuggling-related offences began at a court on the Greek island of Lesbos on Tuesday.

They all deny the charges and say they tried to help people whose lives were in grave danger.

Mardini and Irish volunteer, Sean Binder, spent more than three months in jail in Lesbos after being arrested in 2018 for alleged misdemeanour charges including espionage, forgery and unlawful use of radio frequencies.

The case was postponed in 2021 due to procedural issues.

Mardini was not present for the hearing on Tuesday, which has now been adjourned until Friday.

She and Binder are also under investigation for felonies but no charges have yet been brought.

Speaking outside the court, Binder said: "What's on trial today is human rights. That is the fundamental problem."

He said the group was "desperate" to go on trial because what they did was "legal".

"We need the judge to acknowledge that we need to get through this because until then, there is a shadow of doubt, not over me alone, but over anybody who does search and rescue."

The case against the volunteers has been branded "farcical" by human rights organisation, Amnesty International, which has urged the Greek authorities to drop the charges.

But Greek officials say their migration policy is strict but fair.

Read more:
'The cruel channel killed them' says asylum seeker after boat capsizes
Record number of people cross Channel to UK in small boats in 2022

Director of Amnesty's European Regional Office, Nils Muiznieks, said in a statement: "Sarah and Sean did what any of us should do if we were in their position.

"Helping people at risk of drowning in one of the deadliest sea routes in Europe and assisting them on the shoreline is not a crime.

"This trial reveals how the Greek authorities will go to extreme lengths to deter humanitarian assistance and discourage migrants and refugees from seeking safety on the country's shores, something which we see in a number of European countries," he said.

"It is farcical that this trial is even taking place."

The authorities deny conducting illegal summary deportations of people arriving on Greek soil without allowing them to apply for asylum, in a procedure known as "pushbacks".

Greece saw around one million people cross to its shores from Turkey at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015.

A photo of toddler Alan Kurdi, who died when an inflatable boat carrying his family from Syria capsized, sparked a global outcry over the refugee crisis.

But a year after the tragedy, the three-year-old's father said little had changed.

Greece has since clamped down on migration, erecting a fence along the majority of its land border with Turkey and ramping up sea patrols around its islands.