Trial of nine Egyptians over migrant shipwreck dismissed as protesters clash with police

Greece lacks jurisdiction to hear case of suspects accused of shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants

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The trial in Greece of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck in which hundreds of migrants died was dismissed shortly after it opened on Tuesday.

A prosecutor told the court in the southern city of Kalamata that Greece lacked jurisdiction.

The decision by Presiding Judge Eftichia Kontaratou came shortly after the trial opened and was greeted with cheers and applause from supporters of the defendants at the courthouse.

Earlier, protesters clashed with police as the men went on trial.

Two people were detained following the clashes with riot police that involved a group of protesters outside the courthouse as proceedings got under way.

There were no reports of serious injuries.

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 off the southern coast of Greece.

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.

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.

“Clearly 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.”

International human rights groups had said the defendants' right to a fair trial was being compromised as they face judgment before an investigation is concluded into claims that the Greek coastguard may have botched the rescue attempt.

The protesters could be heard inside the packed courtroom as presiding judge Eftichia Kontaratou read out the names of the nine defendants.

Officers from the special police forces maintained order in the courtroom.

Spyros Pantazis, one of the lawyers in the defence team, said the court had “delivered justice today".

“This case needed a lot of work and a lot of effort. After such a long time, the whole defense team is really happy,” he said.

It was not immediately clear when the nine, who have been in pre-trial detention since being rescued last year, would be released. After the verdict was read, they were taken away to be processed.

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.”

Mr Pantazis had asked the court to declare itself incompetent to try the case, saying 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.

Mr 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.”

Survivors rescued after Greece shipwreck – in pictures

UN 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 were representing the nine Egyptians, who denied the smuggling charges.

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

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.

“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.”

Updated: May 21, 2024, 11:05 AM