Nine Egyptians to go on trial in Greece over deadly Pylos shipwreck

In mid-June 2023, more than 500 people died after the fishing boat they boarded capsized.

May 20, 2024

Athens, Greece – Nine Egyptian men accused of criminal responsibility in the Pylos shipwreck that led to the deaths of more than 550 people on June 14, 2023, will go on trial in Greece on Tuesday.

The accused are alleged to be members of a criminal organisation, facilitating illegal entry into Greece and intentionally causing the shipwreck.

But they have all stated they were not smugglers or responsible for the shipwreck, claiming instead to be simply trying to reach Europe like the others on board.

Organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called the trial proceedings rushed and improper.

“The Pylos 9 defendants were unjustly arrested and charged with smuggling offences based on limited and questionable evidence,” Marion Bouchetel, a member of Legal Centre Lesvos, which is defending the accused, told Al Jazeera.

The group has called the trial an instance of the “systematic criminalisation of migrants in Greece”.

If the nine men are convicted, they face several life sentences.

The shipwreck

The Adriana fishing trawler, which was crammed with as many as 750 people, mostly from Egypt, Pakistan, Syria, and Palestine, set sail from Libya on June 9, 2023.

Four days later, passengers started sending out distress calls that the boat had stopped moving. The Greek coastguard, notified by NGOs, the Italian coastguard, and Europe’s border agency Frontex of the location of the ship, reached Adriana late on June 14 night.

In the first hours of June 15, the Adriana capsized.

Survivor testimonies allege that the Hellenic coastguard attempted to tow the boat, causing it to flip over, and that it did not sufficiently act to save the lives of those in the water.

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The Hellenic coastguard has denied both of these allegations.

There were 104 survivors.

“Our argument, following the testimonies of the survivors, is that these nine people are not responsible for the sinking at the very least. The coastguard is responsible for the sinking,” said Stefanos Levidis, one of the lead researchers in an investigation into the shipwreck, who will testify as an expert witness for the defence.

Levidis’s group, Forensis, which cross-referenced testimonies from 26 survivors with videos and photographs of the ship, vessel tracking and flight path data, satellite imagery, as well as the logs and testimonies of the captain of the coastguard vessel – concluded that the coastguard was responsible for the sinking as it did not properly mobilise other nearby ships, towed the Adriana, retreated causing waves, and then left those who had been thrown overboard as the ship capsized alone at sea for at least 20 minutes.

A joint Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch report, based on testimonies from representatives of the Hellenic coastguard, the Greek police, and nongovernmental organisations, similarly concluded that the coastguard did not respond to distress calls properly and that allegations about its role in the sinking merited a full investigation.

An investigation in Greece’s naval court into the Hellenic coastguard’s role in the shipwreck has yet to be concluded. The defence team has not been given access to the evidence collected.

The Hellenic coastguard has repeatedly stated that those on board refused assistance before the boat capsized, denying any responsibility for the sinking as it maintains it fulfilled its life-saving duties.

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Beyond this, Levidis noted that there are questions about the evidence collected by the Hellenic coastguard after the sinking.

“The process of evidence collection coming from the authorities was lacking, at the very least, if not tampered with,” he said.

The Hellenic coastguard ship PPLS920 was not transmitting data regarding its movements that day.

The optical and thermal cameras on board the ship did not record anything “even though it’s a state-of-the-art, brand-new, very expensive vessel”, said Levidis.

The phones of the survivors that were confiscated after the sinking were lost. They were later found inexplicably more than a month later on a different Hellenic coastguard vessel on the Greek island of Kythira, but were ultimately not examined.

The phones of the coastguard crew were confiscated two months after the incident, and there are several inconsistencies in the bridge logs of the PPLS920 and the captain’s testimony.

“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 yet been completed,” said Judith Sunderland, 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 liabilities of Greek authorities.”

The case file

The prosecution charges are based largely on testimonies taken from nine survivors.

According to the defence lawyers, these testimonies appear to be “widely copy-pasted from each other”.

“These testimonies not only largely resemble each other but were also taken in questionable circumstances, while the survivors were detained in a warehouse in Kalamata, immediately following their rescue from the deadly shipwreck. All these elements raise serious concern about their reliability and even authenticity,” said Bouchetel of Lesvos Legal Centre.

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The Legal Centre Lesvos argues the investigation should have also included communications from the Hellenic coastguard boat, data from nearby planes, and the examination of the mobile phones which the coastguard confiscated from the survivors.

The defence’s request for further evidence to be included in the case was rejected by the interrogator judge, and the case file was closed after six months.

“Despite the mounting evidence of Greece’s responsibility in this tragedy, blame was immediately put on the survivors themselves,” said Bouchetel.

“This reversal of situation is typical of the troubling criminalisation pattern happening in Greece: migrants are unjustly convicted of smuggling offences, often based on limited and questionable evidence, in order to cover up state crimes, violence, and non-rescue by the border authorities.”

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