Athens – It all began the night of 18 June, with an alert sent to the “Alarm Phone” centre, a hotline providing aid to migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean. At one in the morning, the NGO broadcast the message on its Twitter account: “In the Aegean, sinking boat near Mykonos”. They clarified, “We are in contact with a group of 80 people in distress to the southwest of the island of Mykonos. We have alerted the coastguard who have told us that they have begun a search.” A few hours later, the Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitrakis, posted on Twitter: “8 migrants reported missing and 104 rescued in the Cyclades, aboard a sailing boat travelling from the Turkish coast to Europe. Turkey can do a better job by working with Europe and Greece to protect human life and eradicate smuggling networks.”
The day after the rescue, a source in the Greek Ministry of the Navy clarified to Voxeurop, “An inquiry is underway to determine the role played by the refugees on board. Six will be tried soon.” Their crime? “They are suspected of having been at the helm; they collaborated to sail the boat,” continued the source. “They are probably people-smugglers.” In a way, the sentence has already been passed before the trial has even taken place.
The affair is just another in a lengthening list of trials involving migrants. And the trials are always the same: expeditious. “As soon as the Greek coastguard intercepts a migrant boat, they look to see who among the migrants was at the helm,” explains lawyer Alexandros Georgoulis. He offers as proof the cases of the migrants that he represents, notably on the islands of Chios, Samos and Lesbos, a few kilometres from Turkey. They all have a similar story: that of exiles condemned for trying to save lives.
That is the case for Mohammad Hanad Abdi, a Somalian born in 1993. He tells his story from prison on the island of Chios. He had to flee his native country after going through a forced marriage, being injured in an attack on his uncle perpetrated by the Somalian Islamic terrorist group al-Shabaab, and being disowned by his family. “So, I decided to flee, to leave for Greece. First, I went to Turkey, by plane,” he explains. In December 2020, in Izmir, he found a smuggler and paid €450 for a journey to Greece.
He discovered the gravity of the situation once aboard the boat. “There were 34 of us. After a while, the smuggler left the boat. I took the helm even though I had no idea how to steer. We contacted the Turkish coastguard. But it was the Greek coastguard that stopped us.” The boat had already begun to take on water. Two migrants were swept overboard without the other passengers realising. Georgoulis, who represents the Somalian, confirms: “I met a lot of other passengers – they all tell the same story and say that Mohammed saved them.”
However, when the vessel was intercepted by the Greek coastguard, Mohammad Hanad Abdi was arrested. On 13 May 2021, his first trial took place. None of the other passengers was called upon to testify. After a hearing of approximately 45 minutes and a deliberation of an hour and a half, the verdict was announced. Mohammad was sentenced to 142 years in prison. “The judges drew on a Greek law from 2014, Article 30 of Law 4521/2014, to be precise,” explains Georgoulis. “Any person that takes the helm is considered a smuggler and faces a sentence of 15 years per person transported and a life sentence for each person who dies in the course of the journey.”
Judges used the same law to condemn two Afghan migrants, Akif Rasuli and Amir Zahiri, to 50 years in prison at their first trial. The pair arrived in Greece in March 2020, fleeing the war in Afghanistan. They paid a smuggler to take them from Turkey to Greece, gateway to the European Union. As in Mohammad Hanad Abdi’s case, the smuggler left the makeshift vessel as soon as the migrants were at sea. Rasuli and Zahiri took the helm, and the coastguard intercepted the boat. They admit that they sailed the boat to avoid capsizing. They were condemned after a trial that lasted less than two minutes. The only witnesses heard were the Greek coastguards.
“In Greece, migrants are treated like the most heinous criminals. They receive longer sentences than those received by the members of neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn who have been accused of murder and participating in a criminal organisation"
Stelios Kouloglou, Syriza