Greece drops charges against 9 Egyptians in deadly migrant boat disaster citing lack of jurisdiction

Amr Kandil , Tuesday 21 May 2024

A court Kalamata in southern Greece has dismissed on Tuesday charges against nine Egyptians who were accused of causing a migrant boat to capsize and sink off the coast of Greece in June 2023, resulting in the death of hundreds of people, Reuters reported.

Adriana boat
File Photo: This undated handout image provided by the Greek coast guard on June14, 2023, shows scores of people covering practically every free stretch of deck on the battered Adriana fishing boat that later capsized and sank off southern Greece. AP

The court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the case since the shipwreck occurred in international waters.

The ill-fated vessel, named Adriana, was carrying migrants primarily from Syria, Pakistan, and Egypt on a journey from Libya to Italy when it sank in international waters within Greece's designated rescue area.

This incident marked the deadliest migrant shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea in a decade.

The bodies of 82 men, women, and children have been recovered, with 104 others managing to survive.

However, the United Nations believes that over 500 more may have lost their lives, as the boat was carrying up to 750 migrants.

The nine Egyptians, aged 21-41, were charged with migrant smuggling, causing the shipwreck, irregular entry, and participating in a criminal organization - charges that could have led to life imprisonment.

Coastguard accused

The defendants have denied the allegations, while international rights groups, defence lawyers, and witnesses have disputed the men’s responsibility for the tragedy.

The Greek coastguards faced criticism for failing to rescue the overcrowded and distressed boat.

In an interview with BBC after the disaster, six survivors claimed that a Greek patrol vessel had caused the capsizing by improperly attempting to tow the boat from one side, leading to an imbalance.

The Naval Court in Greece is investigating potential wrongdoing by the coastguards.

International humanitarian rights groups have expressed concerns that the Egyptian defendants' right to a fair trial may be compromised, as the investigation into the coastguard's alleged involvement has not concluded.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued a joint statement last week highlighting that a parallel investigation into the Greek authorities' potential liability for the shipwreck is still in its preliminary stage.

Thus, according to the statement, the criminal court will lack complete information when assessing the defendants' culpability in the disaster.

“There’s a real risk that these nine survivors could be found ‘guilty’ based on incomplete and questionable evidence given that the official investigation into the role of the Coast Guard has not yet been completed,” said Associate Europe and Central Asia Director at Human Rights Watch Judith Sunderland.

“Credible and meaningful accountability for one of the worst shipwrecks in the Mediterranean needs to include a determination of any liabilities of Greek authorities,” Sunderland added.

Defence lawyer Spyros Pantazis argued that the court should declare itself incompetent to handle the case, asserting that the capsizing occurred beyond Greek territorial waters.

“The court be turned into an international punisher,” Pantazis told the panel of three judges.

According to BBC which obtained a copy of the court indictment, the charges against the Egyptians were primarily built on interviews conducted by coastguards themselves with several survivors.

The Greek coastguard has denied responsibility for the disaster, claiming that the overcrowded and obsolete boat had refused assistance and was heading steadily toward Italy.


File Photo: This undated handout image provided by the Greek coast guard on June 14, 2023, shows scores of people covering practically every free stretch of deck on the battered Adriana fishing boat that later capsized and sank off southern Greece. AP

Regional, int'l reactions

The shipwreck drew global attention and renewed pressure on European governments to safeguard the lives of migrants and asylum seekers attempting perilous journeys to Europe.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres voiced “horror” over the shipwreck at the time.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) called on the European Union to put “safety and solidarity at the heart of its action in the Mediterranean.”

In 2022, the number of fatalities on migration routes within and from the Middle East and North Africa reached nearly 3,800, the highest number since 2017, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

“This is yet another example of the need for Member States to come together and create orderly safe pathways for people forced to flee and for comprehensive action to save lives at sea and reduce perilous journeys,” said UN Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric after the incident.

Egypt, which mourned the victims shortly after the shipwreck, emphasized its efforts to deter irregular migration and those involved in organizing or facilitating it.

"Egypt reaffirms its condemnation, in the strongest terms, of the continued exploitation by organized gangs [of] those who are looking for better lives and work opportunities, exposing themselves to the risk of death," the statement added.

Since 2016, Egypt has intensified its efforts in curbing irregular migration, launching its first national strategy addressing the issue.

The strategy, with a multi-pronged approach, encompasses Law 82/2016, which sets out stiff penalties criminalising all forms of migrant smuggling.

The law was toughened in 2022, raising fines and punishing those who fail to report the crime.

However, it also seeks to address the issue's root causes, comprising initiatives to boost household incomes and employment in governorates that are the largest sources of irregular migrants.

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