Mediterranean migrant boat disaster: men on trial are ‘scapegoats’, say lawyers

Mediterranean migrant boat disaster: men on trial are ‘scapegoats’, say lawyers

Nine men accused of causing one of the deadliest shipwrecks to have taken place in the Mediterranean are “scapegoats” who should never have been prosecuted, defence lawyers have said, as their long-awaited trial opens in Greece.

The Egyptian suspects, who have been held in pre-trial detention since the 14 June disaster last year, are appearing in court in the southern city of Kalamata on Tuesday.

An estimated 600 men, women and children perished when the Adriana, an ageing fishing trawler believed to be carrying up to 750 people, capsized in international waters off the Greek town of Pylos.

Images of passengers packed on the vastly overcrowded Italy-bound vessel circled the world, prompting global outrage over whether the Hellenic coastguard – first alerted to the ship after it ran into engine trouble about 15 hours before it capsized – could have done more to prevent the disaster.

Victims who had boarded the boat in Libya included Pakistani, Syrian, Egyptian and Palestinian people. It soon emerged that women and children – of the 104 survivors, all were adult males and boys – had been locked in the hold of the boat. The ship sank in one of the deepest areas of the Mediterranean. To date, only 82 bodies have been recovered.

Overhead view of the battered-looking blue boat on the open sea, showing people crowded on its decks, roof and seemingly in every available space. It is a blurred image but people can be seen pointing out to seaView image in fullscreen

But almost a year on, there are concerns as to whether the accused, who were among the survivors, will be given a fair trial. The nine, aged between 20 and 40, stand accused of migrant smuggling, participating in a criminal organisation, endangering human lives and provoking a shipwreck – charges that, if convicted, carry multiple life sentences. All have categorically denied being involved in the smuggling operation.

Anti-fascist and leftist groups are staging a protest outside the courthouse to denounce Europe’s migration policies and deploring what they have described as a “state cover-up”. Before the start of the trial, there was a skirmish between riot police and the protesters.

Defence lawyers have already signalled that they will try to have the case dismissed, arguing that as the shipwreck occurred in international waters, Greek courts lacked the jurisdiction to try it.

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Vicky Aggelidou, a lawyer representing two of the men, said the evidence of prosecution witnesses was not only insufficient but simply did not stack up.

“The witnesses were compelled to give testimony under duress. There’s not the slightest bit of proof against the defendants and that’s because they were paying customers just like the rest,” she said. “Real smugglers never get on a ship. We’re talking about big business. They’re very professional.”

Natasha Dailiani, another defence lawyer, said it was clear the suspects were “scapegoats to cover up the responsibilities of the [Greek] coastguard”. “There must be a fair trial and a search for the real causes,” she added.

Greek government officials insist that authorities were unable to take action earlier because the trawler was in international waters. Although a parallel investigation into the conduct of the Hellenic coastguard is also under way, maritime officials have likewise rebuffed allegations that they deliberately failed to intervene for fear of such a large group of asylum seekers being brought ashore. They have claimed that, while a vessel was dispatched to the area, the stricken boat’s crew members repeatedly turned down offers of help, saying: “No help … [we] go to Italy.”

Groups supporting the rights of survivors and migrants dispute that version of events. In a report released in December, the EU border agency, Frontex, which had spotted the boat from the air before the coastguard, also alluded to dereliction of duty, saying the Greek authorities had failed to reply to follow-up calls and its offers of assistance. In a lawsuit filed last September, survivors not only accused Greek authorities of deliberately failing to intervene to rescue those onboard, but argued that a doomed attempt to tow the trawler caused the vessel to sink.

“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 been completed,” said Judith Sunderland, the associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

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