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Friday, July 19, 2024

Concerns over trial of Greek shipwreck accused

As nine men face trial in Greece accused of causing the worst migrant shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea for a decade, the BBC can reveal key discrepancies in the case against them.

The accused face life in prison if convicted of people-smuggling and causing the sinking of the fishing boat last June in which as many as 600 people are feared to have drowned.

The indictment obtained by the BBC shows the defendants are being prosecuted on evidence which has already been contradicted by at least six survivors who told us the coastguard had caused their boat to capsize and then pressured them to frame the Egyptians.

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have said they have strong reservations about the integrity of the Greek investigation and evidence and are asking whether the defendants will receive a fair trial.

The Greek coastguard has constantly denied their actions brought about the disaster and the authorities have rejected all claims of wrongdoing or of a cover-up.

Up to 500 feared lost at sea

The nine defendants, who are Egyptian and aged between 20 and 41, are listed to stand trial on Tuesday in the southern Greek coastal city of Kalamata.

The men were all on board the “Adriana” fishing boat that sank in international waters, but in Greece’s demarcated rescue area, in one of the deepest parts of the Mediterranean on 14 June last year.

Eighty-two bodies were recovered, but the United Nations believes an additional 500 people – including 100 women and children who were in the hold of the boat – may have died.

It’s estimated the boat was carrying up to 750 migrants when it set off nearly a week earlier from the port of Tobruk in Libya.

The Greek coastguard had been following the boat for at least seven hours before the sinking happened but later said it did not attempt a rescue because the vessel was travelling safely at a “steady speed” and on a “steady course” to Italy and that passengers were not in danger.

A previous BBC investigation cast serious doubt on these claims.

When the BBC put our allegations to Greece’s prime minister last November, Kyriakos Mitsotakis said they were being investigated but that culpability rested with the smugglers.

“Our coastguard has saved tens of thousands of people at sea and we should be grateful for the work they do,” Mr Mitsotakis said.

Marinetraffic Ship tracking data
The movement of ships in the area where the vessel eventually sank (in yellow) suggests it was stationary hours before the shipwreck

Condition of the boat central to prosecution case

The indictment obtained by the BBC reveals that Greek prosecutors accuse the nine Egyptians of causing the disaster by skippering an extremely overcrowded vessel which they knew posed an obvious danger to life.

It reads: “The fishing vessel was not seaworthy as it was old and badly maintained and not fit to transfer such a large number of people, especially for such a huge distance while there were no life jackets.”

The prosecution says each of the defendants took turns to steer the vessel and were all aware the severe overcrowding on both the deck and in the hold was badly affecting stability.

Last summer the Greek coastguard responded to heavy criticism of its failure to do more to help the vessel by insisting the migrant boat was safe and travelling steadily towards Italy and therefore and did not need to be rescued.

Now though, nearly a year after the disaster, the Greek prosecution case will be based on an argument that directly contradicts the coastguard’s official account.

Greek Coast Guard The boat under search lights
This picture of the fishing boat in the hours before it sank was released by the coastguard on Thursday

Claims Egyptian defendants framed

The indictment also says that the nine Egyptian men were part of a smuggling gang and charged each passenger between $4,000 and $8,000 (£3,100-£6,300) for a spot on the boat.

The prosecution’s charges are based on interviews, conducted by the coastguards themselves, of nine other survivors in the days after the disaster.

No evidence from the other 95 survivors appears to have been submitted to the court.

Our team previously heard claims that some of the 104 survivors were pressured into identifying the nine Egyptian men as traffickers.

Two Syrian men, who we called Ahmad and Musaab to protect their identity, told us the coastguard had instructed them to keep quiet about other factors in the disaster and instead to blame these nine men.

“They were imprisoned and were wrongly accused by the Greek authorities as an attempt to cover their crime,” said Musaab.

In separate interviews in Athens, four other survivors told us they believed the Egyptians were paying passengers like them and had been framed.

But other survivors are said to have stated they were indeed mistreated by some of the accused – who have been referred to as the Pylos Nine, drawing on the name of the Greek town of Pylos near the location of the sinking.

Allegations against Greek coastguard not mentioned in indictment

In the weeks after the disaster, multiple survivors claimed that a Greek patrol vessel had in fact caused the migrant boat to capsize in a last-ditch, botched attempt to tow it.

This allegation is not mentioned anywhere in the court indictment even though the United Nations say the claims merit an independent investigation.

The Naval Court in Greece is investigating possible wrongdoing on the part of the coastguard, which has consistently denied all allegations.

Ahmad and Musaab, whom we interviewed last year, claimed they were silenced and intimidated by Greek authorities after suggesting the patrol vessel caused the sinking.

“They attached a rope from the left. Everyone moved to the right side of our boat to balance it,” said Musaab. “The Greek vessel moved off quickly causing our boat to flip. They kept dragging it for quite a distance.”

In total, six survivors described independently to the BBC, in near identical detail, how coastguards caused their boat to capsize.

Ahmad and Musaab
Survivors Ahmad and Musaab claimed the the coastguard had instructed them to keep quiet about other factors in the disaster

Mobile phone evidence not examined

No video from onboard the Adriana has ever emerged, let alone the moment of sinking.

The coastguard said their own high-specification cameras were not recording.

Some survivors said they at times had been filming while onboard but that coastguards confiscated their mobiles shortly after they were rescued.

These phones were apparently then lost before being found almost a month later in a bag onboard the one coastguard vessel that had been present at the sinking.

Defence lawyers had requested that some phones be examined for potentially useful evidence, but court documents obtained by the BBC show the investigating magistrate ruled last year that this would be a futile exercise as a “self-evident consequence” of the migrant falling into the sea was that their phones would have all been irreversibly damaged:

“The sea water has entered the confiscated phones which resulted in the inability to extract any kind of stored digital data from them and as such [attempting to extract data] is pointless.”

Greek military investigation ongoing

The separate Naval Court investigation into the potential liability of the coastguard opened in the weeks after the disaster, but it remains at the preliminary stages.

Human rights groups believe that this should be concluded before any criminal trial of the Egyptian defendants.

Christos Dimopoulos, director of Amnesty International Greece said: “The criminal court will probably have incomplete information in assessing the culpability of the defendants. There is a real risk for the trial to be based on incomplete and/or questionable evidence.”

The Greek government, which has vowed to hold smugglers to account and to crack down on illegal crossings, has said justice will be done.

Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch said:

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

A BBC map shows the location where a migrant boat capsized off the Greek island of Pylos

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