The Egyptians accused of sinking the Pylos ship deny smuggling charges and blame Greece Refugee news

Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect identities.

Athens, Greece – Said* cannot understand why he is in Avlona Prison, a detention center located northeast of the Greek capital, Athens.

The 21-year-old Egyptian said: “Whoever asks me why you are in prison, I answer that I do not know.” “We are children, we are terrified. We were told that we would be sentenced to 400 or 1,000 years in prison. Every time they say that, we die.”

He is among nine Egyptians in pretrial detention accused of criminal responsibility for a murder Shipwreck off the town of Pylos Last year, hundreds of people were killed trying to reach Europe.

The group is accused under Greek law of forming a criminal organization, facilitating illegal entry and causing a shipwreck.

They are the only people trapped on the shipwreck.

However, Al Jazeera, in partnership with Omnia TV and Efimerida ton Syntakton newspaper, can reveal that all nine defendants claim that they were not among the smugglers who organized the trip or benefited from it.

They say they are just surviving passengers and claim that the Greek Coast Guard caused the overcrowded boat to capsize.

Speaking by phone from detention, they told Al Jazeera and its partners that Greek prosecutors did not take their testimonies accurately, and that they pressured them to sign documents they did not understand with violence or under the threat of violence.

Two separate survivors also said the nine defendants were not guilty and blamed the Greek National Coast Guard.

Fearing retaliation for speaking out against the Greek state, all 11 sources asked Al Jazeera to conceal their identities and use pseudonyms in this article.

The nine defendants, who include parents, workers and students, said that they paid between 140,000 and 150,000 Egyptian pounds ($4,500 to 4,900) to a smuggler or his assistant to board the ill-fated boat.

Magdy*, one of the other defendants, said: “I am telling you that I am the one who paid 140,000 Egyptian pounds.” “If I was the guy who put these people on the boat, I’d get seven, eight, nine thousand euros. Twenty thousand euros. Why on earth would I get on a boat like that?”

In 2022, one smuggler told The Guardian that he was charging Egyptians about 120,000 Egyptian pounds ($3,900). Recently Reports have been found Travelers from Syria often pay around 6,000 euros (about 6,500 dollars) for such a trip.

The other two survivors, both Syrians, said they paid money to people, not the Egyptians accused. They added that the nine detained are not involved in smuggling.

“No,” Ahmed* said. “They were not responsible for anything.”

Dozens of people cover practically every deck space on a rickety fishing boat that capsized and later sank off southern Greece.
People cover almost every free deck space on the destroyed fishing boat that later capsizes. Image provided on June 13, 2023 (Greek Coast Guard via AP)

On that fateful day last year, June 14, the ship Adriana, carrying an estimated 700 to 750 people, including Egyptians, Syrians, Pakistanis, Afghans and Palestinians – including children – capsized. The abandoned blue fishing vessel had left Libya five days earlier.

Only 84 bodies were recovered and 104 people on board were rescued, meaning hundreds died in one of the worst refugee boat disasters recorded in the Mediterranean.

Rights groups, activists and some survivors claim that Greek Coast Guard officials failed in their duties to save lives at sea.

Ahmed said that he saw the nine defendants during the chaos as the ship seemed ready to capsize, and the passengers began to panic and run.

“They were just guiding people when our ship started tilting. They were shouting for people to steady the ship,” he said.

Seven of the defendants confirmed that they saw a Coast Guard patrol boat attaching a rope to the fishing vessel. They say Greek officials stopped once, then twice, causing the boat to capsize in the Mediterranean.

Fathi*, one of the other defendants, said: “I saw the Greek boat tied with a thick blue rope, one rope, to the middle of the boat.” “They pulled out, the boat tilted sideways, they saw it was tilting, they kept going, and the boat turned upside down.”

“Greece – a Greek boat, it pulled us in and turned against us – killing our brothers and friends, and now I look at myself in prison.”

Two of the defendants stated that they were detained and did not understand what had happened until after the disaster occurred, when they were on board the Greek Coast Guard boat.

The Syrians Survivors told Al Jazeera They witnessed the Greek Coast Guard towing the fishing vessel.

They had nothing to do with the sinking of the boat. “That’s clear,” Mohamed* said of the detained Egyptians.

“You have to be logical. It was a big boat and it would not have sunk if no one had intervened. The engine was destroyed but it could have stayed afloat. The Greek Coast Guard is the real one responsible for the sinking.”

The Greek Coast Guard denied the allegations, saying it “fully respects human life and human rights.”

Her statement to Al Jazeera stated: “But in cooperation with the legal authorities and other relevant bodies, appropriate oversight mechanisms will be put in place when necessary.”

Initially, the Coast Guard did not mention any incident involving the rope in its official statements, and its spokesman Nikos Alexiou denied the rope reports.

However, Alexiou later said the two boats were “tied with ropes to prevent them from drifting” in a statement that came amid growing accounts from survivors.

The ongoing investigation at the Maritime Court in Kalamata aims to determine whether the Greek Coast Guard properly conducted search and rescue operations.

A recent Frontex report on the Pylos shipwreck concluded that “Greek authorities appear to have failed to timely announce search and rescue operations and deploy a sufficient number of appropriate assets in time to rescue the migrants.”

The start date for the trial of the nine accused has not been set, although according to Greek law, it must begin within 18 months from the date of their first arrest. If the men are found guilty, they could face decades in prison.

“After I fell, he hit me.”

The nine men say they gave their testimony at Kalamata police station the day after the ship sank under duress. They said they were pressured to sign documents in Greek that they could not understand.

Two said that police officers and translators who were present during interrogation hit or kicked them.

Saber* said that he was given papers in Greek and expressed his unwillingness to sign them.

“He (the translator) told me that he would sign next to mine. It was as if nothing had happened,” he said. “After I signed, he hit me.”

Saber* said that he saw policemen kick another defendant in the chest.

Greek police did not respond to requests for comment on these allegations.

Human rights groups have long accused Greece of unfairly charging – and sentencing – innocent people for smuggling.

Dimitris Choulis, a defense lawyer who has spent years working on similar cases with the Samos Human Rights Legal Project, sees this incident as another example of the “criminalization of refugees.”

“We see the same patterns and the same unwillingness on the part of the authorities to actually investigate what happened,” Shulis told Al Jazeera.

A 2021 report by German charity Border Control found at least 48 cases on the islands of Chios and Lesbos alone of people serving prison sentences, saying they “did not benefit in any way from the smuggling business.”

Smuggling trials used to take just 20 minutes and result in 50-year prison sentences, Schulis said.

This is in line with reports from monitoring groups such as Borderline-Europe that smuggling trials in Greece are being rushed and “issued on the basis of limited and questionable evidence.”

The Lesbos Legal Centre, which is also working on the defense of the nine Egyptians, lamented the severe lack of evidence, saying the investigation file was based “almost exclusively” on a collection of testimonies taken in “questionable circumstances.”

In addition, Al Jazeera reviewed leaked documents from the court case, including a complaint by the defendant’s lawyers that an expert report from a naval engineer and a marine mechanical engineer – requested as part of the investigation – used the bare minimum of evidence: three photographs, two videos and an email. One. The complaint alleged that the report did not take into account the ship’s capsizing and sinking.

The defense also questioned the integrity of the experts appointed and stated that procedures regarding how the defendants were notified of this expert report were not followed.

Al Jazeera reviewed the response. The Kalamata prosecutor dismissed the complaint, arguing that an additional expert report would be redundant and that procedures had been properly followed.

“I firmly believe that it was the Greek Coast Guard that caused the ship to sink,” Choulis said. “The Greek Coast Guard conducted all prior investigations into this case, and they ordered the marine engineer to conduct the analysis. I think the problem is clear here.”

Four of the accused men said they handed water to the people sitting next to them.

Cholis explained that in previous cases of trafficking, giving water to people was considered smuggling.

“We have seen the authorities accuse people, and in Pylos as well, of actions such as providing water, distributing food, having a phone, taking videos, looking at the GPS, calling the authorities, and trapping a rope to pull their boat to rescue them.” etc.”

Jamal* cannot understand how offering someone water is considered smuggling.

“Of course, if you had a bottle of water in your hand and someone next to you was dying of thirst, wouldn’t you give them water?” He said from prison. “No. This is considered human trafficking.”

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