Yes, Sara Mardini Is Still in Prison for Saving Refugees, and So Is Seán Binder

by Elena Gagovska

My summer was filled with editing work for Joshua Dubler and Vincent Lloyd’s book on prison abolition. This led to a lot of thinking about who the prison system criminalizes and what justice means in the framework of that system. When the school year began with news of the arrests of two activists, one of whom is a BCB student, I felt like it was time to put theory into practice.

I found out about Sara Mardini’s and Seán Binder’s arrests when two activists that I know from Berlin contacted me and two of my friends, Nathan French (Alum 2018) and Julia Damphouse (BA4, HAST), about the news a day before the BCB press release was sent out to all the students. The news of their situation was obviously concerning, but it was encouraging that people who are not from the school had heard about this before I had and wanted to take action. The fact that their story was getting attention was comforting — at least the world wasn’t ignoring Sara and Seán, which is always important with questions of political imprisonment. But because we live in a world of short media cycles, that spotlight won’t last long enough to help them get out of jail unless we help keep it on them.

Being a humanities rather than a law student, it was immediately clear to me what role I and my fellow students need to play in this situation. Unlike Sara and Seán’s lawyers, we are not here to provide the legal arguments, but rather the moral ones for their release. It is up to us to help tell Sara and Seán’s narratives and to keep getting people to listen to and care about their stories.

Sara and Seán volunteered with an aid group called ERCI (Emergency Response Center International) on the Greek island of Lesbos this past summer. There they were part of a group of volunteers who provided arriving refugees with blankets, made sure the kids were alright, and gave first aid help when necessary. As an Arabic speaker, Sara was also working in the camp clinic as a coordinator and translator. Since Lesbos is one of the main entry points for refugees to Europe, they certainly had their hands full. However, instead of being applauded for their work, they were arrested.

Sara and Seán’s story was quickly covered by the media and their actions were portrayed in both positive and negative lights. Regardless of the spin on their stories, the fact is that they have been accused, but not yet legally charged, with human trafficking, membership in a criminal organization, money laundering and espionage.Both of them have been in prison for four weeks where they are awaiting trial. This may take up to eighteen months or even longer. Not to mention that the charges are partly unsubstantiated and partly false. In fact, her lawyer said for The Guardian:

The accusations are more about criminalising humanitarian action. Sara wasn’t even here when these alleged crimes took place, but, as charges they are serious — perhaps the most serious any aid worker has ever faced.

The decision to keep them in prison until their trial is absolutely outrageous and the fact that the charges are not substantiated makes the whole situation even more absurd and infuriating.

With such serious charges, it made sense that the people who were concerned about Sara and Seán have activated diplomatic channels. The German and Irish embassies were both contacted as Sara is a Syrian refugee who has residential status in Germany and Seán is a German citizen who has lived in Ireland since the age of five. At first, Seán’s mother, Fanny Binder, felt that she had not been getting adequate assistance from either the German or the Irish representatives, but things have thankfully changed.

“Seán and I are now in contact with the German embassy, and a representative will come to see him in Chios very soon. Members of the Irish embassy in Greece and the Irish government have promised to keep an eye on the situation even though it is more difficult for them to help as Seán is only a resident, not a citizen, of Ireland,” Fanny told me earlier this week.

This institutional support from government bodies is, of course, immensely important in order to exert international pressure on the Greek authorities to release Sara and Seán. Support has also come from sixty NGOs who have signed the statement issued by We Are a Welcoming Europe campaign. In this statement they urge the release of the two volunteers, writing: “The arrest of Sara Mardini and Seán Binder is the latest case of a worrying trend towards the criminalisation of solidarity in Europe.”

Members from Theater X, the Berlin-based youth theater that Sara was a part of, have also reached out to BCB and want to help. They are interested in making a performance art piece about Sara that would tell her story and would potentially be a part of demonstrations regarding her and Seán’s case.

BCB and other concerned parties have also been in contact with various media outlets to cover Sara and Seán’s story. So far this strategy has been quite successful as The GuardianThe IndependentZDF and others have written and broadcasted on the topic. But, as I mentioned earlier, this sort of coverage won’t last forever if the situation remains unchanged: With Sara and Seán stuck in prison awaiting trial, the media will lose interest in their story.

Thus, we have decided to organize a demonstration in Berlin. Seebrücke, an international solidarity movement for refugees, contacted BCB soon after we had the idea about the protest, and they will most likely be helping us organize an action that would help keep the media spotlight on Seán and Sara. Bringing further international attention to their case will put pressure on the Greek government for their release. Two of Seán’s friends have also already contacted me about organizing a similar demonstration in Ireland on the same date. The protests, if we manage to coordinate them, will take place very soon.

Whenever these two demos actually end up happening, I am incredibly glad that the effort to free humanitarians has been met with support from many parties. There is something beautiful about international efforts and the solidarity they engender.  But, even more importantly, international organizing has proven to be historically effective. It took global activist efforts to free political prisoners like Angela Davis and Nelson Mandela. It is international pressure of a horizontal nature that resulted in authorities making legal decisions they otherwise would not have made.

When one of the biggest and most polarizing issues of our time is migration — particularly that of non-white people — it is no wonder that immigrants, refugees and those who help them have become criminalized. Right-wing movements constantly blame the influx of immigrants and refugees for economic problems caused by a flawed economic system. Anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment has become such a mainstream view due the scapegoating of these communities that their humanity has been put up for debate. In such an extreme political climate, Sara and Sean’s arrest fits in perfectly with Greece’s national ‘scare campaign’ set up to discourage young potential volunteers from joining the local NGOs as well as with the broader narrative of European right-wing movements that emphasize the supposed illegality of seeking asylum. Under no circumstances should we become accustomed  to such actions or accept this situation as normal.

We must go back to and learn from history in times as dire as these. We must mobilize and create international pressure in a similar way that activists of previous generations have. We must do everything we can to free the political prisoners of our time.

But the question is: How exactly should we do that? Besides the methods mentioned above, I thought that I could help Sara and Seán in a way that proved ultimately unfeasible: I thought I could give them a platform. They have been receiving so much media attention, yet at no point have they been able to speak for themselves. When one is oppressed or suffers from state violence, I believe they ought to have control over their narratives by having the space to speak about their own experiences themselves.

So when Fanny Binder told me that she had seen Seán in prison, I asked if she would  send him some questions I had for him. Fanny was happy to pass on my inquiries but told me that in two days Seán was going to be transferred to another prison. That meant that I had to give her the questions in the morning of the day before his transfer, and, since I saw the email late at night, I stayed up to make sure I did not waste the opportunity. I asked questions like: “Your father was a Vietnamese refugee who came to Germany after the Vietnam War. How do you think this personal history has affected the way you see and engage in refugee politics?” and “Are you getting support from the other prisoners? Do you consider yourself and Sara to be political prisoners?”

Fanny informed me that Seán enthusiastically answered my questions, and I impatiently awaited his responses. However, Seán’s lawyer advised them against speaking publicly about his imprisonment before the trial as it might impact his chances of getting released, so Fanny never sent me his answers. I was disappointed: Not only did I feel like the answers to these questions are important from a journalistic point of view, but after becoming so involved in Sara and Seán’s case, I wanted to get to know at least one of them personally. Still, no matter my disappointment, I can’t blame Fanny, Seán or his lawyer for this decision.

Their decision to not go through with the interview made me realize that I had overlooked certain things about incarceration:  When someone is incarcerated, even if they have not yet been proven guilty, certain rights and privileges disappear from their lives.

“Now four weeks into his detention, Seán is finally able to go outside, and he is very grateful for this,” Fanny told me.

It is obvious that prisons take away prisoners’ right to freedom of movement, but I had never considered the extent to which they can do so. Unlike his movement, Seán’s speech is not literally restricted by law or a police officer. Rather, the self-policing he has to perform is coerced and is in some sense of a more sinister nature. As a prisoner, people in the judicial branch have power over his fate. In theory, the law should prevail: If he has done nothing illegal, he should be released. But, in practice, we can see that, even though Sara and Seán haven’t been proven to have done anything illegal, they could both remain in detention for up to a year and a half and would have to feel “grateful” that the Greek prison system has graced them with outside time.

Especially after working on Dubler and Lloyd’s book, I have come to understand that we tend to equate the criminal justice system with justice itself. However, this is often not the case. People who end up in prisons are very often not the evil murderers and rapists that we imagine them to be. Instead, more often than not, they are part of disadvantaged classes: They are poor, they are people of color, they are immigrants and refugees. Because of the restrictiveness of the prison system, we often do not get to hear from prisoners, whose stories are riddled with un-freedom, which leads us to assume that they must just be “bad people” who deserve to be punished rather than human beings who have simply made mistakes or are perhaps even innocent and wrongfully imprisoned.

So my initial assumption was wrong. Neither Sara nor Seán can just speak for themselves — not when the institution of the prison doesn’t allow it, not when speaking for themselves can lead to prolonged incarceration. Sara and Seán cannot make the claim that they are political prisoners. But I can. People who know them can. And activists who do not know them can. Other than trying to dismantle oppressive systems like the prison all together, on an individual case to case basis, it seems that, unfortunately, sometimes we have to speak for the incarcerated.

Long term prison abolitionist or even prison reformist strategies are not necessarily the same strategies that one might use to help free individual prisoners in the short run. So in Sara and Seán’s case, it is important that we have critiques of the oppressive nature of prisons in mind while thinking about the specificity of their context. Thus, I can write my analysis of why Seán could not speak freely; if those critiques of the prison are made enough times, they may help prisoners in the long run. But for now I still am not at liberty to publish his story in his own words. This simply means that our resistance has to be smart. We should indeed continue fighting so that Sara, Seán and all political prisoners eventually get to tell their own story.

For now I want to share some of what I have learned from people who know Sara and Seán well:

“Being the Sara which our collective had come to know and love, she decided to leave the comfort of her newly found home in Berlin and her friends and colleagues in our Club and our Theater to return to the borders of fortress Europe to actively help all those hoping for a safe and better life after having faced the threat of perishing in the sea and landing dead on its shores herself. I hope that she and many brave women and men like her will be freed and that the brutality of the European regimes will finally be stopped and become relics of the past. That is why we we all at Theater X say: Free Sara now!” said Ahmed Shah, the artistic director of Theater X and Club al Hakawati.

“Actually, I knew about Sara before we met. In August 2017 during the Welcome Dinner for freshmen, two women were talking next to me, and I heard some chunks of conversation like ‘I am a swimmer… a refugee… my sister Yusra is also a swimmer’. And then I literally interrupted her with something like: ‘Hold on, I think I read an article about you in a goddamn magazine’. Now that I’ve gotten to know Sara, I can say that she is really protective of other people. I think she has always been like this; it’s not that her life journey shaped her this way, but she is so strong by herself that she overcomes challenges. And she continues to do so,” BCB student Aziza Izamova (HAST, BA2) recounted the start of her friendship with Sara.

“Seán grew up in County Kerry about five minutes from my own home. We’ve been friends since the age of five. When he first moved to Ireland he had no English and, being a 5-year-old, I didn’t have any German. But we managed to strike a friendship from the word ‘go’. Former teachers, coaches, and everyone who knows Seán were absolutely shocked to hear about his arrest. The Seán we all know is a good soul and a kind, generous person. When I first heard about the charges imposed on Seán, I remembered him telling me about Lesbos and about how he gave his own boots to a migrant to help them traverse rocks and rough ground. There’s no better way to describe Seán’s attitude to life than that,” explained Seán’s childhood friend Rowan Copeland.

“Sara was a coworker of mine in the context of Theater X. She was part of the theater collective Club al Hakwati. More specifically, she was an actress and also one of the people managing the group’s activities. I remember when I saw her on stage for the first time, on the really small stage of Theater X. The entire room fell silent as she started telling the story of her long way to Germany. She wore a white “Hakawati” robe and had this captivating way of talking to the audience. The story seemed like it wasn’t real, but you could feel it was all true — how she and her sister saved all those people on their rubber boat as they crossed the Mediterranean. She had that radiating energy that made people hold their breath. She invested so much passion and energy in the refugee struggle and never lost sight of what she was fighting for: Freedom of movement, the right to stay. She embodied the parole of Club al Hakawati: ‘Nobody gives us a voice — we take it!’” said Dinah Büchner from Theater X.

“I try to be hopeful all the time. It’s very encouraging that we have an amazing network of support all over the world. But Sara’s and Seán’s freedom is still taken away from them and we have to do all we can do to make sure a trial day is set immediately so they can prove their innocence and be freed,” said Seán’s mother, Fanny.

I feel like I have learned a lot about Sara and Seán from talking to all of these people. However, I still lament the interview that I could never do with Seán. If they both agree to it, I would love to interview them when they get out of prison. But, until then, I will do everything I can so that sooner rather than later they are able to tell their stories about both their humanitarian work and their incarceration themselves.

Elena Gagovska is an active member of Die LINKE Berlin Internationals. This article was first publisched on Die Bärliner blog