ATHENS — Five volunteers for European aid groups who worked in Greece at the height of the migrant crisis were cleared of charges of illegally bringing migrants into the country by a Greek court on the Aegean island of Lesbos on Monday.
The case had been closely watched by migrant relief and rescue groups, especially in Denmark and Spain, where the volunteers were from, because their defense lawyers and supporters said it was an attempt to criminalize humanitarian action.
The issue has taken on broad importance across Europe and especially in the Mediterranean as the migrant crisis has continued, if at a lower level than when the defendants in Greece volunteered two years ago. The political divisions stoked by migration have left the line between humanitarian intervention and criminal interaction increasingly treacherous to navigate in many countries for nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs.
“This is a strong signal to other NGOs and just people working for humanity,” said one of the Danish defendants, Salam Aldeen, the founder of Team Humanity, speaking by telephone after the verdict. “Saving lives is not a crime, rescuing people is not a crime.”
Mr. Aldeen said he was now eager to return home after nearly two years in Greece — his pretrial conditions included being barred from leaving the country. He continued working as a rescuer during that time, he said.
“I lost everything but I did not lose my humanity,” he said.
Along with Mr. Aldeen and another Dane, Mohammed el-Abassi, who also worked for Team Humanity, three Spanish firefighters who volunteered for the Spanish group Proem-Aid faced as many as 15 years in prison.
The five were arrested on Jan. 14, 2016, just a few hours after successfully rescuing 51 migrants, according to Mr. Aldeen, the owner of the boat on which the five were working.
Not long after their operation, the men said, they had alerted the Greek authorities to another migrant boat in trouble, without approaching it. They were arrested soon after. “We didn’t even see the boat,” Mr. Aldeen had contended.
The prosecution drew condemnation from some Spanish officials and aid and advocacy groups, including Amnesty International, as Team Humanity and Proem-Aid sought to raise public awareness about the case.
“Since when is it a crime to save lives?” Team Humanity’s website asked.
Last month, the three Spanish firefighters — Manuel Blanco, José Enrique Rodríguez and Julio Latorre — held a news conference alongside Spain’s foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, and the volunteers