‘I don’t smuggle people … I save them’, migrant rescue leader says after being acquitted of human trafficking

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Salam Aldeen of the rescue group Team Humanity saves a child on the Greek Island of Lesvos at the height of the migrant crisis in 2015. (Getty Images)
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Volunteers and NGOs across Europe have flocked to the Greek islands since the summer of 2015 to help rescue and shelter the refugees and migrants, who have been arriving by boat on European shores from conflict-ridden countries such as Syria and Iraq. (Getty Images)
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Volunteers and NGOs across Europe have flocked to the Greek islands since the summer of 2015 to help rescue and shelter the refugees and migrants, who have been arriving by boat on European shores from conflict-ridden countries such as Syria and Iraq. (Getty Images)
Updated 22 May 2018
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‘I don’t smuggle people … I save them’, migrant rescue leader says after being acquitted of human trafficking

  • "I lost two years of my life doing what I loved, helping, but I was criminalized for doing it,” Team Humanity founder Salam Aldeen tells Arab News in an exclusive interview.
  • Aldeen founded Team Humanity in 2015 while on the island working alongside his partner and co-founder Amal Mahmut, a German citizen who was once a refugee herself.

JEDDAH: Exhausted and relieved, Salam Aldeen, the founder of Team Humanity, a volunteer group that helps boatloads of refugees off Europe to arrive safely to shore, is finally home in Denmark after being acquitted of charges that he was trying to smuggle the people he was actually assisting.

Aldeen faced a life sentence for answering a humanitarian call. He was arrested on his boat while trying to save lives from a brutal sea off the Greek island of Lesbos. He and four other volunteers were charged with attempting to facilitate illegal entry and smuggling. 

“How do you arrest someone for helping others?” Aldeen asked. “It questions the lawful and just reasons why volunteers do what they do and it’s shameful that there’s a single hint of doubt as to their motives for doing so. I lost two years of my life doing what I loved, helping, but I was criminalized for doing it.”

Born in Moldova to immigrant parents who later became residents of Denmark after fleeing the civil war in 1992, Aldeen is slowly adjusting to life back home. In an exclusive interview with Arab News, he expressed his desire to rebuild his life after spending more than two years helping to save and assist refugees and migrants arriving on the island during the peak of the refugee crisis. “Team Humanity is not a temporary organization,” he said. “Now that I’m back, I plan on expanding my operations, but I’ll never go back to Lesvos. The mental toll was greater than I anticipated and now, at 35, I must start my life all over again and I’ll command from my base here in Denmark.”

Aldeen was originally motivated by a single photograph that brought the extent of the refugee crisis to the world’s attention in 2015. “One picture changed everything: three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy who drowned in the Aegean Sea and was found face-down on a Turkish beach,” said Aldeen. “Whatever plans I had that year were scratched. I booked a ticket to Lesbos island for one week in September 2015.” 

Volunteers and NGOs across Europe have flocked to the Greek islands since the summer of 2015 to help rescue and shelter the refugees and migrants, who have been arriving by boat on European shores from conflict-ridden countries such as Syria and Iraq.

“Islanders were doing all they could to save refugees and migrants, but it was an ongoing war for them still,” said Aldeen. “The camps on the island were overflowing and Team Humanity, as well as many NGOs on the island, did their best to provide the health services they needed and were given food and shelter too.”

With their combined efforts and the skills of doctors, lifeguards and firefighters, the volunteers have helped save the lives of thousands of people landing on the island. “I am grateful to the ones that immediately responded to our first call for help addressed to the international community to help us cope with the refugee crisis,” the mayor of Lesbos, Spyros Galinos, has said.

“Helping refugees on the island was a constant rush,” Aldeen recalled. “I never took a break and survived on power naps. A bond between volunteers bloomed as the magnitude of the crisis hit us with each arrival and all hands were on deck.”

Aldeen founded Team Humanity in 2015 while on the island working alongside his partner and co-founder Amal Mahmut, a German citizen who was once a refugee herself. The team’s volunteers came from across the world, all with the intent of saving lives and making sure that refugees were provided with help before moving on to their next destination in Europe. 

“I helped maneuver boats to reach land safely and at times I would need to head out with my boat along with a few volunteers, with the acknowledgement of the Greek coastguard, to save migrants and refugees from their sinking dinghies,” Aldeen explained. “All volunteers were cooperating with the authorities. They needed all the help they could get for it was overwhelming at times.” But Aldeen got mixed up in the law on Jan. 14, 2016, when he was out on patrol with four other volunteers, fellow countryman Mohammed Abbassi and three firefighters from Seville, Spain, with the group Proem-Aid: Manuel Blanco, Julio Latorre and Jose Enrique Rodriguez. 

After receiving a distress call from a passenger on a sinking dinghy full of people and clearance from the Greek port authority, they were attempting to find it when the Greek coastguard intercepted them and arrested all five. The people on the capsized boat were later found by the Turkish coastguard.

Latorre said they still don’t understand the case against them. “We are an organization that works with papers registered with the local authorities and we always notify our embassy with our progress,” he said.

After being freed on bond, Aldeen was obligated to stay in Greece and check in with the authorities every week. “Up until the day of the trial, I was fearful that I wouldn’t be able to continue my life’s work. I feared for myself, my family and loved ones. But I feared most for the people that I won’t be able to save,” he said. 

Still, he used his two years there as an opportunity to expand his operations to more dire locations such as Camp Idomeni, in northern Greece near the Macedonian border.

“I did what I could with the resources I had and the connections I made. All the projects were temporary since the authorities moved migrants and refugees constantly, but my time in Greece was very efficient. I helped erect shelters, schools, mosques, churches and houses of worship.”

Despite the prosecution, all the volunteers continued their work on Lesvos, supporting the Greek authorities and providing services at Camp Moria, the largest camp on the island and home to more than 7,600 asylum seekers, including about 400 unaccompanied minors. 

Fast-forward to the trial of May 7. Aldeen and the rest of the volunteers were acquitted of their crimes after a judge set them free owing to discrepancies in the testimonies and evidence. 

“I buried people with my own two hands, and this trial was 100 times harder,” Aldeen said. “After long hours of testimonies, the prosecutors and lawyers going back and forth, the judge said two words: you’re free.”

The room erupted in cheers as friends, families and supporters cried and ululated in celebration of the acquittal from all charges. While Aldeen won’t go back to Greece, he is determined to continue his work from Denmark.

“The relief we provide in Greece is one of many projects I intend on expanding,” he said. 

“Instead of targeting countries where refugees are most likely to turn to (Greece), I want to go to the source. Build homes, schools, clinics in their war-stricken countries such as Iraq, Syria and African countries where most refugees and migrants are from. I’d want to provide them with the necessary skills to be self-sufficient and bring stability to their lives using their own skills. It’s far better than providing temporary shelter or school for children. Start-ups are more reliable with long-lasting success.”

The four others, who faced 10 years in prison, went back home to recuperate after their ordeal but have vowed to return soon. Abbassi, a Danish Red Cross worker and father of two young children whose grandparents moved to Lebanon from Palestine in the 1950s, said one day he wished to bring his children there to show them where refugees arrived to come to a new land and start a new life.

“I never understood the magnitude of the situation until I came and saw it myself,” said Abbassi, 26. “The Greek authorities needed all the help they could get, and many did come. One image, one video could change your whole perspective. It did for me and everyone that came.”


US special counsel disputes report Trump told lawyer to lie

Robert Mueller’s office disputed a report in BuzzFeed News. (AP)
Updated 20 min 7 sec ago
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US special counsel disputes report Trump told lawyer to lie

  • While Mueller’s spokesman stopped short of declaring the article false in its entirety, he disputed portions of the story that appear to go to the heart of the allegations made against Trump

WASHINGTON: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office on Friday disputed a report in BuzzFeed News that President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen said Trump directed him to lie to Congress.
BuzzFeed, citing two unnamed law enforcement sources, said Cohen, who is going to prison for lying to Congress, told investigators working for Mueller that Trump had directed him to lie about efforts to build a skyscraper in Moscow while he was running for president.
“BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate,” Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller’s office, said in a rare statement from the special counsel.
While Mueller’s spokesman stopped short of declaring the article false in its entirety, he disputed portions of the story that appear to go to the heart of the allegations made against Trump.
It was the first time Mueller has commented about a news article concerning his probe of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith said in a statement: “We stand by the reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he’s disputing.”
After the BuzzFeed report was published on Thursday night, investigators in the US Senate and House of Representatives said they plan to examine the allegations in the report.
Leading Democrats in the House said they would seek to verify the story, saying that if true it would be evidence of criminal activity by the president.
Earlier on Friday, the White House said the story was false. “Look, that’s absolutely ridiculous,” spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters.
David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor, said it was “exceedingly rare” for Mueller to comment on a news report, highlighting the significance of the allegations made in the BuzzFeed article and the attention it was getting in the media and among lawmakers.
“They are making a public comment to tell everyone to calm down,” Weinstein said. “He doesn’t want people to think his silence is confirming the truthfulness of the report.”
BuzzFeed said Mueller’s office learned of Trump’s instructions to Cohen through internal Trump Organization emails, witness interviews, text messages and other documents, and that Cohen told prosecutors about the directive in an interview.
Trump said on Twitter that Cohen was lying in order to get less prison time. Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said in a statement that any suggestion that Trump told Cohen to lie is “categorically false.”
Representatives for the Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment on the BuzzFeed report.
Cohen, who once said he was so loyal to Trump that he would “take a bullet” for him, is scheduled to begin a three-year prison sentence in March after pleading guilty to charges including campaign finance violations, tax evasion and lying to Congress.
If Trump did tell Cohen to lie, that would constitute criminal activity, said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat, who said he would look into the matter.
“Directing a subordinate to lie to Congress is a federal crime,” Nadler said on Twitter.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said the allegation that Trump may have directed Cohen to lie under oath “is among the most serious to date.”
“We will do what’s necessary to find out if it’s true,” Schiff, also a Democrat, said on Twitter.
Some Senate Intelligence Committee investigators hope to ask Cohen about the BuzzFeed report when he testifies behind closed doors in February, a committee source told Reuters.
He also will face questions about it in testimony before the House Oversight Committee on Feb. 7.

“SEISMIC EVENT“
Legal experts say the allegation exposed Trump to a new level of risk in an investigation that has already resulted in convictions of or guilty pleas from four former campaign aides, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
“It’s a seismic event,” Andy Wright, an associate White House counsel under former Democratic President Barack Obama, told Reuters.
Cohen, his left arm in a sling, did not comment as he entered his apartment building in New York on Friday. His adviser, Lanny Davis, also declined to comment to Reuters, and his lawyer, Guy Petrillo, did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump denounced Cohen as a “rat” after he began cooperating with investigators while Cohen, whose duties included making payoffs to two women who said they had affairs with Trump, said on Thursday he regretted giving “my blind loyalty to a man who doesn’t deserve it.”
Directing or encouraging someone to lie under oath is a crime known as subornation of perjury. The report also raises questions about obstruction of justice and conspiracy.
William Barr, Trump’s nominee to be attorney general, said at his confirmation hearing on Tuesday that a president would be committing obstruction if he directed a subordinate to lie under oath. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
While the Justice Department has previously concluded that a sitting president cannot be charged while in office, such an allegation, if found true, could fuel impeachment proceedings in Congress.
Trump repeatedly has denied collusion with Russia and slammed Mueller’s investigation as a “witch hunt.” Russia also has rejected US intelligence findings that Moscow interfered in US politics in the 2016 election in an effort to boost Trump.
Trump said during the presidential campaign that he had no ties or business dealings with Russia.
Democrats, who took over the US House of Representatives this month, have generally been cautious regarding any talk of impeachment to remove Trump from office although some rank-and-file members have pushed for such a resolution.
Impeachment proceedings would face an uphill battle in the Senate, where Trump’s fellow Republicans have a majority.
BuzzFeed also reported that Cohen regularly updated Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. and his daughter Ivanka Trump, who is now a top White House adviser, about the Moscow project.
A spokesman for Abbe Lowell, a lawyer for Ivanka Trump, said she was minimally involved in the development. Trump Jr., who has also testified previously before Congress, in a Twitter post called the BuzzFeed report “fake news.”