Nonsense of the Month: May 2024

ONE YEAR AFTER PYLOS MASSACRE: the baseless and cruel prosecution of the Pylos 9 exposed 

This month, to illustrate parts of the administrative kafkaesque nightmare faced by migrants in Greece, we would like to talk about the case of the Pylos9. 

To quickly recap what has happened in the case: One year ago, on 14 June 2023, one of the deadliest shipwrecks in the Mediterranean occurred when the fishing boat ‘Adriana’ sank in international waters about 47 nautical miles off the coast of Greece. Only 104 men survived, and it is estimated that more than 600 people were killed, including all women and children on board. Although European and Greek authorities were alerted to the ship’s presence and situation of distress hours before the capsizing, no rescue operation was attempted. Survivors have given consistent accounts that the ship only capsized after it was towed by the Hellenic Coast Guard. Following the shipwreck, instead of investigating responsibility of the Coast Guard and Frontex, the Greek authorities instead arrested nine of the survivors themselves.

Besides a lack of evidence against them, from the moment of their arrest, it was clear that there was no legal basis to charge the “Pylos9” of any of the crimes they were accused of. First, they were accused of unauthorised entry to Greece, while none of the nine entered Greece until they were brought there by Greek authorities. Second, they were charged with smuggling of foreigners to Greece, when again none of the survivors of the Adriana shipwreck were brought to Greece except by Greek authorities. 

Finally, the nine were charged with membership in a criminal organisation, and causing a shipwreck. However, all alleged crimes that occurred happened in international waters – a fact that had been acknowledged by the Greek authorities since the tragedy took place. This means that any alleged crimes that took place fall outside the jurisdiction of Greek criminal courts. As a side note, it is important to note that the Greek Coast Guard, however, is not outside the jurisdiction of Greece’s own courts, as crimes carried out by state actors do fall within Greek courts’ jurisdiction. 

While it has been common knowledge since the day of the shipwreck that it occurred in international waters, it took the Court until the trial on 21 May 2024 – eleven months after the shipwreck – to declare itself incompetent to adjudicate the charges (and in parallel, also acquitted the defendants of illegal entry and smuggling). For solidarity actors accustomed to Greek authorities flaunting the rule of law, the decision came as a welcome surprise. However, this decision could have come much earlier, as defence lawyers had presented objections to the jurisdiction of the courts since early in the pre-trial phase, yet these earlier objections were rejected without any reasonable justification. 

The delayed decision during the trial does not come without a cost. The emotional and physical cost for the nine survivors who had to wait nearly a year in prison in pre-trial detention after the deadly massacre is immeasurable. But there are also the measurable financial costs for the legal defence team, the family members, the defence witnesses, and the support campaign preparing for trial. These costs also include travel expenses for all of the above to mobilise to be in Kalamata for a trial that never should have happened.  

And perhaps this is the point. Postponements and delayed administration of justice are routine in Greek courts, and always create a financial burden on defendants, their lawyers, and solidarity campaigns – but are particularly costly for foreign defendants whose family and witnesses may need to travel from outside Greece for every scheduled hearing. Of course a delayed outcome that results in the freedom of migrants is preferable to the systematic conviction of migrants on baseless charges. However, these are only partial victories, and as demonstrated in the case of the Pylos 9, the torture of the Pylos 9 didn’t end with the dismissal of charges against them. 

In a cruel twist of events, once criminal charges were dropped against the Pylos 9, the police immediately issued a decision to put them in administrative detention based on Article 50 of Law 4939/2022. The police claimed that the nine, who filed their asylum application from prison, did not possess any identification documents and since they were not registered at an address in Greece, there was a considerable flight risk. Effectively this meant that, after spending eleven months in prison waiting for their trial, and after the Court actually acquitted them, the nine were still not allowed to have even just a moment of freedom. Their arbitrary punishment continued, as if nothing had happened. Again, this practice, in violation of the principle of double jeopardy, is not something new.

After their lawyers filed objections against the detention orders in Administrative Court (incurring additional costs), eight of the nine have now been released, however the ninth remains detained. He is held in deportation detention in one of Greece’s police stations, which are known for their inhumane treatment of detainees and living conditions. 

The case of the Pylos9 highlights that the detention and criminalisation of migrants is a systematic abuse of power which does not stop even in the most harrowing cases. The European legal framework allows detention of migrants exclusively as a measure of last resort and if some additional criteria apply (e.g. applicants being a danger for public security). However, in a recent report, Refugee Support Aegean found that in 2023, Greek Authorities issued over 24.000 detention orders (which may be extended for up to 18 months), indicating that detention is used as a tool of collective punishment and deterrence. 

While the case of the Pylos9 has a partially positive outcome, we are reserved in our celebration. Even now, we worry that the decision to drop charges against the Pylos 9 could be appealed by a higher court – despite the fact that the prosecutor in the Kalamata court recommended acquittal. At the same time, one year after the Pylos massacre, no officer of the Greek Coast Guard or other government official has even had their employment suspended, let alone faced any criminal investigation or sanction related to this tragedy.

It is unacceptable that the Greek authorities arrested survivors of one of the deadliest shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, and instead of providing them with psychosocial support, put them in prison for eleven months despite a clear lack of evidence and legal basis to charge them, and even after their acquittal continued the abuse by keeping them in detention. 

The criminalisation of people arriving in Greece and Europe must stop. Too many innocent people are in prison. Too many are unfairly accused and forced to go through lengthy legal battles. Seeking asylum is not illegal and crossing borders for this purpose may not be criminalised. Yet, Greece continues to do this with the endorsement of the European Union. This needs to end. And we need to end it now. 




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