Greek judge dismisses case against Egyptians accused over migrant ship disaster

21 May 2024, 11:54

One of nine Egyptians, who was on trial for migrant smuggling, waves to the media as he leaves the court in Kalamata
Migration Greece Shipwreck Trial. Picture: PA

More than 500 people are believed to have gone down with a fishing trawler travelling from Libya to Italy last year.

A Greek judge has dismissed charges against nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants last year.

The tragedy sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations after a prosecutor told the court Greece lacked jurisdiction.

Shortly after the trial opened in the southern Greek city of Kalamata, public prosecutor Ekaterini Tsironi recommended that the charges be dismissed, saying that Greek jurisdiction could be established because the overcrowded trawler sank outside Greek territorial waters.

More than 500 people are believed to have gone down with the fishing trawler, which had been travelling from Libya to Italy. Following the sinking, 104 people were rescued – mostly migrants from Syria, Pakistan and Egypt – and 82 bodies were recovered.

Supporters celebrating after the court’s decision
Supporters celebrated after the court’s decision (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Supporters clapped and cheered as the judge announced the dismissal of a case that had faced criticism from international human rights groups, who argued that the accuseds’ right to a fair trial was compromised because they faced judgment while an investigation into the Greek coastguard’s rescue attempt is still under way.

Earlier, a small group of protesters clashed with riot police outside the courthouse. There were no reports of serious injuries but two people were detained. Officers from the special police forces maintained order in the courtroom.

The defendants, most in their 20s, faced up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges over the sinking of the Adriana fishing trawler on June 14 last year off the southern coast of Greece.

Defence lawyer Spyros Pantazis had earlier asked the court to declare itself incompetent to try the case, arguing that the sinking occurred outside Greek territorial waters.

“The court should not be turned into an international punisher,” Mr Pantazis told the panel of three judges.

Protesters clashing with police outside the court
Protesters clashed with police outside the court (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Presiding judge Eftichia Kontaratou questioned all nine defendants through an interpreter. The accused said their intention was to travel to Italy, not Greece, and several declared their innocence.

Mr Kontaratou acknowledged that there “were no Greeks on board, it was not under a Greek flag and all the documents refer to the (vessel being) 47 nautical miles away”.

United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres last year described the shipwreck as “horrific”.

The sinking renewed pressure on European governments to protect the lives of migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach the continent, as the number of people travelling illegally across the Mediterranean continues to rise every year.

Lawyers from Greek human rights groups are representing the nine Egyptians, who deny the smuggling charges.

“There’s a real risk that these nine survivors could be found ‘guilty’ on the basis of incomplete and questionable evidence, given that the official investigation into the role of the coastguard has not yet been completed,” said Judith Sunderland, an associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch.

Authorities say the defendants were identified by other survivors and the indictments are based on their evidence.

The European border protection agency Frontex says illegal border detections at EU frontiers increased for three consecutive years through 2023, reaching the highest level since the 2015-2016 migration crisis – driven largely by arrivals at the sea borders.

By Press Association

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