Greek trial of one of Med’s worst migrant tragedies opens


KALAMATA: The trial of nine accused smugglers opened in Greece on Tuesday, nearly a year after a migrant trawler with hundreds on board sank off the country’s coast in one of Europe’s deadliest shipwrecks.

The rusty and overloaded trawler Adriana sank on the night of June 13 to 14, 2023, carrying more than 750 people, according to the U.N.. Only 82 bodies were found.

Nine Egyptian men — who were among the 104 survivors — are in court in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, to answer charges including negligent homicide, participation in a criminal organisation and facilitating illegal entry into the country.

The men, aged 21 to 37 years old, have denied responsibility.

Their lawyers say they are being scapegoated to obscure the responsibilities of the Greek coastguard, which failed to mount an effective rescue.

The suspects, who have spent the past 11 months in pre-trial detention, face life imprisonment if convicted.

Dalia Abdel Megui, the aunt of one of the accused, said she had travelled from Italy to attend the trial.

“Our nephew is innocent,” she said. “He only came to Europe to seek a better future, he is not a criminal,” she told AFP.

As the sinking occurred in international waters, 87 kilometers off the coast of Pylos, lawyers for the defendants will argue a Greek court is not competent to hear the case.

Anti-fascist and leftist groups are staging a protest outside the courthouse to denounce Europe’s migration policies.

Before the start of the trial, there was a skirmish between riot police and the protesters, with one person taken to hospital.

Protester Panagiotis Merdikas told AFP that the police had attacked the crowd after it refused to disperse, and detained two people.

Procedural violations claimed

The defence team will argue that major procedural violations were committed in the investigation that led to the trial.

They say their clients were arrested barely 24 hours after surviving the sinking, and on the basis of just nine testimonies, some of them collected without adequate translation.

“Our clients were still in shock from what they had experienced. Other (defendants) were on oxygen therapy. And all of a sudden, they were arrested without understanding why,” Effie Doussi, a member of the defence legal team, told reporters last week.

Some survivors subsequently claimed to have come under pressure from Greek police to “designate” suspects, based on blurry photographs, she added.

The sinking of the rusty and overloaded trawler Adriana on the night of June 13 to 14, 2023 off the coast of Greece, has left many unanswered questions as to whether the tragedy could have been averted.

The boat had set sail from Libya and was heading for Italy. Only 82 bodies were found while according to the U.N., more than 750 people were on board, including Syrians, Palestinians and nearly 350 Pakistanis, according to the Pakistani government.

Ahead of the trial, Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted that a parallel investigation into the Greek authorities’ actions is still at a preliminary stage — meaning the court will have incomplete information in assessing the culpability of the defendants.

“There’s a real risk that these nine survivors could be found ‘guilty’ on the basis of incomplete and questionable evidence,” Judith Sunderland, HRW associate Europe and Central Asia director said in a statement.

“Credible and meaningful accountability for one of the worst shipwrecks in the Mediterranean needs to include a determination of any liabilities of Greek authorities,” she added.

The NGO Alarm Phone and the EU’s border agency Frontex had both reported the trawler’s presence to Greek authorities while it was in the Greek search and rescue zone.

‘Refused help’

The coastguard has insisted that it communicated with people on board who “refused any help”.

“You cannot divert a boat with so many people on board by force unless there is cooperation,” coastguard spokesman Nikolaos Alexiou had said at the time.

But survivors said the coastguard had wanted to tow the overloaded trawler.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whose country is accused by rights groups of practising illegal pushbacks at its border with Türkiye, later dismissed claims against the port authorities as “very unfair”.

An investigation by a naval court into the possible responsibilities of the coastguards is underway. But requests for access to the file have all been refused, the defence lawyers said.

In September, around fifty survivors filed a group lawsuit against the coastguard.

For migrant rights proponents, the trial is part of a longstanding practice of criminalising asylum seekers.

According to the NGO Borderline Europe, Greek prisons hold around 2,000 migrants accused of being smugglers, constituting the second largest group in Greece’s prison population.__Daily Hurriyet