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Greek judge dismisses case against Egyptians accused in shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants

One of nine Egyptians who was on trial for migrant smuggling leaves the court in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024.  (Thanassis Stavrakis / AP Photo) One of nine Egyptians who was on trial for migrant smuggling leaves the court in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. (Thanassis Stavrakis / AP Photo)
KALAMATA, Greece -

A Greek judge dismissed a case Tuesday against nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants last year and sent shock waves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations, after a prosecutor told the court Greece lacked jurisdiction.

The decision by presiding judge Eftichia Kontaratou came shortly after the trial opened in the southern Greek city of Kalamata, and was greeted with cheers and applause from supporters of the defendants at the courthouse.

More than 500 people are believed to have gone down with the Adriana, which sank in one of the deepest parts of the Mediterranean while travelling from Libya to Italy. Only 104 people were rescued from the overcrowded fishing trawler — all men, the vast majority from Syria, Pakistan and Egypt — and 82 bodies were recovered.

Prosecutors accused the defendants, most in their 20s, of being part of the trawler's crew — something the defence denied — and therefore being responsible for the mistreatment of passengers and the massively overcrowded conditions which authorities argued led to the boat capsizing and sinking on June 14, 2023. The nine men faced up to life in prison had they been convicted of the multiple criminal charges against them, including people smuggling and causing a deadly shipwreck.

The judge's ruling followed a recommendation by public prosecutor Ekaterini Tsironi for the case to be dismissed because the trawler sank outside Greek territorial waters.

“The shipwreck clearly occurred in international waters and … the jurisdiction of the Greek courts cannot be established," she said. "I propose that they be declared innocent.”

The case had faced criticism from international human rights groups, who argued the defendants' right to a fair trial was compromised because they faced judgment while a separate Naval Court investigation into the sinking and the Greek coast guard's actions is still under way.

The trawler was sailing in international waters but within Greece's search and rescue area of operations when it capsized and sank. A coast guard patrol boat and passing merchant ships were near the vessel for hours but did not manage to prevent the massive loss of life.

Several survivors have said the capsizing happened after the Greek coast guard attempted to tow the ship, an accusation Greek authorities deny. The exact circumstances of the sinking remain unclear.

The indictments against the nine were based on testimonies from another nine survivors. Defence lawyers argued that testimony had been coerced, and that their clients had been paying passengers who were scapegoated by authorities eager to put the blame for the sinking on overcrowded conditions.

Dimitris Choulis, one of the lawyers in the defence team, said attention should now turn to how the Adriana sank.

“The court today had to be very brave to issue this decision, and to say that these people are not the smugglers,” Choulis said. “So now the narrative of the bad smugglers (does not) exist any more, so we need to find who caused the shipwreck.”

Choulis blamed the tragedy on the Greek coast guard and Europe's migration policies, and said it was essential to “make sure that nothing like that would happen again.”

His comments were echoed by Judith Sunderland, an associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch.

“Now that the survivors’ ordeal is over, we need to see the Naval Court conclude its investigation to determine the responsibilities of the Greek Coast Guard for the tremendous loss of life in the Pylos shipwreck,” she said. Pylos is the Greek town that was closest to where the trawler sank, and the shipwreck has become known by that name.

The nine, who have been in pre-trial detention since the shipwreck, were expected to be released from jail on Wednesday after processing procedures were complete.

The Kalamata court “delivered justice today,” said another defence lawyer, Spyros Pantazis. “This case needed a lot of work and a lot of effort. After such a long time, the whole defence team is really happy.”

Dalia Abdel-Magid, the aunt defendant Mohammed Emad Abdel-Magid, reacted emotionally to the news that her nephew had been acquitted.

“I’m so happy that I just want to hug him and take him with me," she said. "I hope that everything gets better for him now.”

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.

“Justice prevailed. These people stayed in jail for a year even though they were innocent, and this must not happen again," said Stelios Kouloglou, a Greek member of the European Parliament. “There are 2,000 innocent people in Greek jails, accused of or convicted of smuggling. The vast majority are innocent.”

As the trial started, Kontaratou questioned all nine defendants through an interpreter. The accused said their intention had been to travel to Italy, not Greece, and several declared their innocence.

She acknowledged that on the ship 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.

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 2015-16 migration crisis, driven largely by arrivals by sea. Top Stories

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