After Iasonas Apostolopoulos, an experienced rescuer working with several NGOs in the eastern and central Mediterranean, criticized migrant rejections in the Aegean Sea during a speech to the European Parliament on May 10, the Nea Dimokratia-led government’s spokesman, Giannis Oikonomou, called his words “a stab in the back” against the men and women of the Greek Coast Guard at a time of tension with Turkey.
Oikonomou’s post was published on Facebook and Twitter a week ago. Immediately afterwards, websites and newspapers aligned with the government majority and major Greek television stations started targeting Apostolopoulos, a 38-year-old from Athens. The young man has been called “anti-Greek” by some MPs, as if he were a traitor to the homeland, and continues to receive death threats from anonymous social media accounts.
In Strasbourg, Apostolopoulos, alongside Syriza MEP Stelios Kouloglou, had attended a meeting organized by an international campaign of solidarity with Mohamad, Amir and Akif, three refugees sentenced to between 50 and 142 years in prison because they allegedly drove the boat in which they arrived on the Greek islands. In his speech, Apostolopoulos had harsh words against the policies of Europe and its coastal states, Italy, Malta and Greece. In particular, he accused the Frontex agency, whose director Fabrice Leggeri recently resigned after allegations of human rights violations, saying they covered up rejections by the Greek Coast Guard. He also accused the agency of “throwing intercepted refugees into the water” instead of rescuing them.
These are not fantasies, but incidents documented by investigations conducted by newspapers such as The Guardian, Der Spiegel and the investigative journalism consortium Lighthouse Reports. In a report from February, UNHCR noted 540 incidents of “informal refoulement” that had occurred in the previous two years along the sea and land borders between Greece and Turkey.
“The government is accusing me of being a traitor because it is looking for internal enemies to strike against in the headlines,” Apostolopoulos says. “The political agenda has been diverted from everyday problems that are plaguing the population, such as rising inflation and poverty and the loss of purchasing power, to nationalist rhetoric in an anti-Turkish vein. They are claiming that to criticize this government is to betray Greece, as if they themselves were the country, as if there was no right to dissent,” he continues.
There are growing tensions between Athens and Ankara over the status quo in the Aegean Sea. On Thursday, at the end of a military exercise near Izmir, Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “We invite Greece to stop arming the islands that have non-military status and to act in accordance with international agreements.” On a threatening note, he added: “I’m not joking. I’m speaking seriously. This nation is determined.”
The Greek government majority also leveled accusations of treason at Syriza for voting against the purchase of Rafale fighter jets from France and at its MP Yannis Bournos for confirming the presence of military hardware on the islands.
This is not the first time that Apostolopoulos has found himself at the center of attacks from Greek right-wing figures and activists. On July 22 of last year, while on a mission with MSF in the central Mediterranean, he had received a phone call from an aide to the President of the Hellenic Republic, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, announcing that he would be awarded the highest institutional award for his humanitarian activities: the Order of Honor. When his name was made public the next day, alongside such personalities as Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla or European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schoinas, all hell broke loose. Just 24 hours later, MP Kostantinos Bogdanos, who was expelled in October 2021 from Nea Dimokratia and joined a more far-right party, proudly announced that they had gotten Apostolopoulos’s award canceled.
“I no longer received any official communications, nor were there any statements from President Sakellaropoulou. In the following days, in Parliament, the majority and opposition clashed bitterly over my case,” Apostolopoulos says. In January of this year, his parents’ home address was published. On that occasion, Mediterranea, with whom he has taken part in a number of missions, wrote to the Greek ambassador to Italy asking him to intervene with his government to protect the activist’s safety. Because of this hate campaign, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor, who is visiting Athens, has invited Apostolopoulos to attend a summit which was held on Wednesday.
Apostolopoulos’s first migrant rescue activities date back to 2015, when he reached the island of Lesbos with other Athenian activists. After the EU-Turkey agreement to stop migration flows, he continued to save lives in the central Mediterranean by taking part in numerous missions. He was on board the ships Aquarius, Mare Jonio and Geo Barents. He has helped bring thousands of people to safety and faced the threat of death at sea and violence at the hands of the self-styled Libyan “Coast Guard.”
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