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

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

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

‘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.”


Female doctor killed in eastern Afghanistan after murder of media workers

Female doctor killed in eastern Afghanistan after murder of media workers
Updated 19 sec ago

Female doctor killed in eastern Afghanistan after murder of media workers

Female doctor killed in eastern Afghanistan after murder of media workers
  • Journalists, religious scholars, activists and judges have all been victims of a recent wave of political assassinations across Afghanistan
  • In the latest incident, the doctor was killed after a magnetic bomb was attached to the vehicle she was traveling in
JALALABAD, Afghanistan: A female doctor was killed in a bomb blast in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad in what appeared to be another targeted hit, officials said Thursday, just days after three women media workers were gunned down in the area.
Journalists, religious scholars, activists and judges have all been victims of a recent wave of political assassinations across Afghanistan, forcing many into hiding — with some fleeing the country.
In the latest incident, the doctor was killed after a magnetic bomb was attached to the vehicle she was traveling in, according to a spokesman from the provincial governor’s office. A child was also injured by the explosion.
“She was commuting in a rickshaw when the bomb went off,” the spokesman told AFP.
Another spokesman from a provincial hospital also confirmed the incident and toll.
The blast was later claimed by the local affiliate of Daesh, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, with the extremist group saying the victim was “working as an apostate Afghan intelligence element.”
The attack comes two days after three female media workers were gunned down in Jalalabad in separate attacks that were just minutes apart.
That attack was also claimed by Daesh.
Afghan and US officials have blamed the Taliban for the wave of violence in the past, but the group has repeatedly denied the charges.
The assassinations have been acutely felt by women, whose rights were crushed under the Taliban’s five-year rule, including being banned from working.
Intelligence officials have previously linked the renewed threat against female professionals to demands at the peace talks for their rights to be protected.
The attacks come as speculation is rife over America’s future in Afghanistan after the administration of President Joe Biden announced plans to review the withdrawal agreement signed with the Taliban last year that paved the way for foreign troops to leave the country by May.

New Zealand man charged over threats to Christchurch mosques

New Zealand man charged over threats to Christchurch mosques
Updated 04 March 2021

New Zealand man charged over threats to Christchurch mosques

New Zealand man charged over threats to Christchurch mosques
  • Police on Thursday arrested the 27-year-old man and charged him with threatening to kill
  • The arrest comes as Muslims prepare to mark the second anniversary of a white supremacist gunman’s attack at the mosques

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: A New Zealand man is facing criminal charges after allegedly posting online threats against two Christchurch mosques that were the sites of a terrorist attack that left 51 people dead.
Police on Thursday arrested the 27-year-old man and charged him with threatening to kill. If found guilty, he faces a maximum prison sentence of seven years.
Police Superintendent John Price told reporters the threats were made earlier this week on the website 4chan, which has been used as a forum in the past by white supremacists.
The arrest comes as Muslims prepare to mark the second anniversary of a white supremacist gunman’s attack at the mosques.
Price said there would be an enhanced police presence at the mosques during the commemoration of the March 15, 2019, attacks. He said that had been planned before the threats came to light.
Price declined to give details of the alleged threats or name the man ahead of his first scheduled court appearance on Friday.
“Any threat made on our community and our people is a threat on our society, and will not be tolerated,” Price said. “Any messages of hate or people wanting to cause harm in our community, they will be held to account.”
Police initially arrested two men and executed search warrants at two Christchurch addresses. One of the men was later released without being charged.
In the 2019 attack, gunman Brenton Tarrant slaughtered worshippers at the mosques during Friday prayers. Last year he pleaded guilty to 92 counts of murder, attempted murder and terrorism. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.


20 migrants dead after thrown into sea off Djibouti

20 migrants dead after thrown into sea off Djibouti
Updated 04 March 2021

20 migrants dead after thrown into sea off Djibouti

20 migrants dead after thrown into sea off Djibouti
  • At least 200 migrants, including children, were aboard the vessel when it left Oulebi in Djibouti in the early hours of Wednesday for Yemen
  • About thirty minutes into the voyage across the Gulf of Aden the smugglers panicked, survivors said, throwing around 80 people overboard

NAIROBI: At least 20 people drowned after smugglers threw dozens of migrants overboard during a crossing between Djibouti and Yemen, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said Thursday.
“Survivors believe at least 20 people have been killed. There are still some unaccounted for. Five bodies washed up onshore,” said Yvonne Ndege, IOM regional spokesperson for the East and Horn of Africa, told AFP.
At least 200 migrants, including children, were aboard the vessel when it left Oulebi in Djibouti in the early hours of Wednesday for Yemen, survivors told the IOM.
About thirty minutes into the voyage across the Gulf of Aden the smugglers panicked, survivors said, throwing around 80 people overboard before turning the vessel back toward Djibouti.
“Of the 80 people who were forced off, only 60 made it back to shore,” Ndege said.
Five bodies were recovered Wednesday and there are fears the death toll could still rise.
The survivors are receiving medical treatment in the Djibouti port town of Obock and testimonies are still being collected.
Two similar incidents in the Gulf of Aden in October claimed the lives of at least 50 migrants, the IOM said.


Sweden attacker identified as 22-year-old Afghan

Sweden attacker identified as 22-year-old Afghan
Updated 04 March 2021

Sweden attacker identified as 22-year-old Afghan

Sweden attacker identified as 22-year-old Afghan
  • The suspect, who is in his twenties, was taken to hospital after being shot in the leg by police following the mid-afternoon attack
  • Police did not specify the man’s nationality, but according to several media reports, he was originally from Afghanistan

STOCKHOLM: The suspect in the stabbing that left seven injured in Sweden is a 22-year-old Afghan, who arrived in the Nordic country in 2018, media reported Thursday.
Swedish police are investigating a possible terror incident after a man stabbed and injured at least seven people in the city of Vetlanda on Wednesday.
A police statement early Thursday revised the number of injured in the attack to seven from eight but did not give further details.
The suspect, who is in his twenties, was taken to hospital after being shot in the leg by police following the mid-afternoon attack in the southern city of 13,000 inhabitants.
Speaking to AFP, police said the man had used a “sharp weapon,” while local media reported that he had brandished a knife.
Police initially treated the incident as “attempted murder” but later changed it in a statement to include a “suspected terrorist crime,” without giving further details.
Police did not specify the man’s nationality, but according to several media reports, he was originally from Afghanistan and had arrived in Sweden in 2018.
Three of those attacked were said to have suffered life-threatening injuries, while two others were in serious condition, according to the local health authority in Jonkoping where they were being treated in hospital.
Regional police chief Malena Grann later clarified that a preliminary investigation was still under the designation “attempted murder,” but details had emerged that meant they were also looking into “potential terror motives.”
“There are details in the investigation that have led us to investigate whether there was a terror motive,” Grann said, without giving details.
He added that the police were working closely with the Swedish intelligence service Sapo.
The suspect was a resident of the area and previously known to police, but in the past had only been accused of “petty crimes,” including small-scale cannabis use, according to local press.
The extent of his injuries were also unknown but police said they believed they would be able question him.
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven condemned the “horrific violence” in a statement published on his Facebook page.
“We face these despicable actions with the combined force of the community,” Lofven said.
“We are reminded of how frail our safe existence is,” Lofven added.
Swedish intelligence services said the terrorist threat was high.
The Scandinavian country has been targeted twice by attacks in recent years.
In December 2010, a man carried out a suicide bomb attack in the center of Stockholm. He died after only slightly injuring passers-by.
In April 2017, a radicalized Uzbek asylum seeker mowed down pedestrians in Stockholm with a stolen truck, killing five people. He was sentenced to life in prison.


Hong Kong court denies bail to 32 democracy activists

Hong Kong court denies bail to 32 democracy activists
Updated 04 March 2021

Hong Kong court denies bail to 32 democracy activists

Hong Kong court denies bail to 32 democracy activists
  • The group of activists was charged with conspiracy to commit subversion under the law and detained on Sunday

HONG KONG: A Hong Kong court on Thursday denied bail to 32 out of 47 pro-democracy activists charged under a Beijing-imposed national security law, ending a four-day marathon court hearing.
The group of activists was charged with conspiracy to commit subversion under the law and detained on Sunday over their involvement in an unofficial primary election last year that authorities said was a plot to paralyze Hong Kong’s government.
The mass charges against the activists were the most sweeping action taken against the city’s pro-democracy camp since the national security law was implemented last June.
With the 32 activists remanded in custody until the next court hearing on May 31, it means that a majority of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy figures will now be in jail or in self-exile abroad amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
Bail proceedings for the activists began on Monday, often taking a full day and at times continuing into the early hours of the morning.
The bail proceedings ongoing since Monday have lasted often a full day and at times into the morning, and several defendants have fallen ill.
Under Hong Kong’s common law system, defendants are usually granted bail for non-violent crimes. But the national security law removed the presumption of bail, with a clause saying it will not be granted unless the judge has sufficient grounds to believe defendants “will not continue to commit acts endangering national security.”
The 47 are part of a broader group of 55 activists who were arrested in January for their role in the primary elections. Eight of them were not charged on Sunday.
The primary was aimed at determining the strongest candidates to field for a legislative council election that would give the pro-democracy camp the best chance to gain a legislative majority. The government later postponed the legislative elections, citing public health risks from the coronavirus.
If the pro-democracy camp had won a majority, at least some members of the camp had plans to vote down major bills that would eventually force Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to resign. Authorities said the activists’ participation in the primary was part of a plan to paralyze the city’s legislature and subvert state power.
The national security law criminalizes secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces to intervene in the city’s affairs as well as terrorism. Serious offenders could face life imprisonment.
Prominent pro-democracy advocate Joshua Wong, who is currently serving a 13 1/2-month jail sentence on protest-related charges, as well as Benny Tai, the co-founder of the 2014 Occupy Central movement, are among the activists charged this week.