Egyptians accused in Pylos shipwreck case deny smuggling, blame Greece

Months after the tragic disaster that killed hundreds at sea, nine accused men languishing in prison insist they are innocent.

*First Published in Al Jazeera

By Moira Lavelle and Vedat Yeler

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

Athens, Greece – Saeed* cannot understand why he is in the Avlona prison, a detention centre northeast of the Greek capital Athens.

“Whoever asks me why you are in prison, I answer that I don’t know,” said the 21-year-old Egyptian. “We’re children, we’re terrified. We are told that we will be sentenced to 400 or 1,000 years in prison. Every time they say that, we die.”

He is among nine Egyptians in pre-trial detention and charged with criminal responsibility for a shipwreck off the town of Pylos last year, which led to the deaths of hundreds of people trying to reach Europe.

The group is being charged under Greek law with forming a criminal organisation, facilitating illegal entry and causing a shipwreck.

They are the only people being held over the shipwreck.

However, Al Jazeera, in partnership with Omnia TV and the Efimerida ton Syntakton newspaper, can reveal that all nine accused claim they were not among the smugglers who organised or profited from the journey.

They say they were simply passengers who survived and allege that the Greek Coast Guard caused the overpacked boat to capsize.

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

Two separate survivors also said the nine accused were not guilty and pinned blame on the national Hellenic Coast Guard.

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

The nine accused, who include fathers, workers and students, said they paid between 140,000 to 150,000 Egyptian pounds ($4,500 to $4,900) to a smuggler or an associate to board the doomed boat.

“I am telling you, I am someone who paid 140,000 Egyptian pounds,” said Magdy*, another of the accused. “If I am the guy who put these people on the boat, I’ll have like seven, eight, or nine thousand euros. Twenty thousand euros. Why on earth would I board a boat like this?”

In 2022, a smuggler told The Guardian that he charges Egyptians about 120,000 Egyptian pounds ($3,900). Recent reporting has found that those travelling from Syria often pay about 6,000 euros (about $6,500) for such a journey.

The two other survivors, both Syrians, said they paid money to people but not the accused Egyptians. The nine being held were not involved in smuggling, they said.

“No. They weren’t to blame for anything,” said Ahmed*.

scores of people covering practically every free stretch of deck on a battered fishing boat that later capsized and sank off southern Greece
People cover practically every free stretch of the deck on the battered fishing boat that later capsized. Image provided June 13, 2023 [Hellenic Coast Guard via AP]

On that fateful day last year, June 14, the Adriana, overloaded with an estimated 700-750 people, including Egyptians, Syrians, Pakistanis, Afghans and Palestinians – among them children – capsized. The derelict blue fishing trawler had departed from Libya five days earlier.

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

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

Ahmed said he saw the nine accused during the chaos as the ship looked ready to capsize, and passengers began to panic and run about.

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

Seven of the accused maintain that they saw a Coast Guard patrol boat tie a rope to the fishing trawler. The Greek officials pulled once, then twice, causing the boat to flip over into the Mediterranean, they say.

“I saw the Greek boat had tethered a thick blue rope, one rope, to the middle of the boat,” said Fathy*, another of the accused men. “They pulled, the boat leaned sideways, they saw it was leaning, they kept going, so the boat was turned upside down.”

“Greece – a Greek boat, towed us and capsized us – and killed our brothers and friends and now I look at myself and I’m in prison.”

Two of the accused stated they were in the hold and did not understand what had happened until after disaster struck, when they were on board the Greek Coast Guard boat.

The two Syrian survivors told Al Jazeera they witnessed the Greek Coast Guard tug the fishing trawler.

“They had nothing to do with the boat sinking. That’s obvious,” said Mohammad*, of the Egyptians being held.

“You have to be logical. It was a big boat and wouldn’t have sunk if no one had intervened. The engine was broken but it could have stayed afloat. The Greek Coast Guard is truly responsible for the sinking.”

The Hellenic Coast Guard denied the allegations, saying it has “absolute respect for human life and human rights”.

“However, in cooperation with the legal authorities and other relevant bodies, appropriate control mechanisms shall be put in place where necessary,” its statement to Al Jazeera read.

Initially, the coast guard did not refer to any rope-related incident in its official statements and its spokesman Nikos Alexiou denied the rope reports.

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

An ongoing inquiry in the naval court of Kalamata aims to determine whether the Hellenic Coast Guard performed search and rescue properly.

A recent Frontex incident report of the Pylos shipwreck found that “it appears that the Greek authorities failed to timely declare a search and rescue and to deploy a sufficient number of appropriate assets in time to rescue the migrants”.

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

‘After I signed, he hit me’

The nine men say they provided their testimonies at the Kalamata police station the day after the shipwreck under duress. They were pressured to sign documents in Greek that they could not understand, they said.

Two said that police officers and translators present during the interrogation beat or kicked them.

Saber* said he was given papers in Greek and expressed that he did not want to sign them.

“[The interpreter] told me that he would sign next to my signature. As if nothing happened,” he said. “After I signed, he hit me.”

Saber* said he saw the police kick another one of the accused in the chest.

The Hellenic Police did not respond to requests for comment on these allegations.

Greece has long been accused by rights groups of unfairly accusing innocent people of smuggling – and sentencing them.

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

“We see the same patterns and the same unwillingness from the authorities to actually investigate what happened,” Choulis told Al Jazeera.

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

Choulis said that smuggling trials used to last just 20 minutes and result in sentences of 50 years in prison.

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

The Lesbos Legal Center, which is also working on the defence of the nine Egyptians, bemoaned a severe lack of evidence, saying the investigation file is based “almost exclusively” on a handful of testimonies taken in “questionable circumstances”.

Additionally, Al Jazeera has reviewed leaked documents from the court case, including a complaint filed by the defendant’s lawyers that an expert report from a marine engineer and a naval mechanical engineer – ordered as a part of the investigation – used minimal evidence: three photographs, two videos, and one email. The report did not account for the overturning and sinking of the ship, the complaint alleged.

The defence further questioned the impartiality of the appointed experts and stated that procedures regarding how the defendants should be notified of this expert report were not followed.

Al Jazeera reviewed the response; the Kalamata Public Prosecutor dismissed the complaint, arguing that a further expert report would be redundant and that the procedures were in fact followed correctly.

“I firmly believe that the Hellenic Coast Guard caused the shipwreck,” said Choulis. “And the Hellenic Coast Guard conducted all of the pre-investigation of this case, and they ordered the marine engineer to do the analysis. I guess it’s clear the problem here.”

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

Choulis explained that in previous trafficking cases, giving people water has qualified as smuggling.

“We have seen the authorities charging people, and in Pylos the same, for acts like providing water, distributing food, having a phone, taking videos, looking at the GPS, contacting the authorities, trapping a rope to tow their boat to be rescued etc.”

Gamal* cannot understand how handing someone water is considered smuggling.

“Of course, if you have a bottle of water in your hand and someone next to you is dying of thirst, won’t you give them water?” he said from prison. “No. Here, this is considered human trafficking.”

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