Pylos scapegoats: The nine shipwreck survivors facing criminal charges in Greece

This article is a collaboration between the newsrooms of Mada Masr (Egypt) and OmniaTV (Greece).

One day in summer last year, Saber*, a 32 year old from Sharqiya, was led by authorities to cross the short distance from where he was sitting — on a mattress on the bare concrete floor of a set of fenced storage units in the port area of Kalamata — to an interrogation site just 500 meters away.

There, he was confronted by a woman representing the Hellenic Coast Guard. At her side was a translator he’d never met before.

Over the course of the conversation, he realized he was being accused of being responsible for the shipwreck he had survived just hours ago.

“When I was being interrogated by that woman… she told me, ‘people said you were telling passengers on the boat to sit down and gave them water’,” Saber says, describing that she presented his actions as evidence of his criminal activity.

“I said that I was asking them to sit because I was afraid we were going to die… and that I had a bottle of water in my hand, so I was giving the children water. I didn’t deny [my actions], even though I was afraid for my wife and three kids,” says Saber, speaking about his family back home in Egypt.

The woman from the Greek port authority responded, “We have good connections with Sisi and with your country, and if you don’t do as you’re told, we will humiliate your wife and kids.’ I did not respond, but I was terrified.”

Saber is one of an estimated 750 people who were on a boat that sank off the coast of Pylos in Greece last year. Most were from Pakistan, nearly 200 were Egyptians, and some were Syrian and Palestinian.

Saber and 103 other people were the only ones to survive. At least 82 bodies were recovered, and over 500 more people who were on the boat are still missing, presumed dead.

Less than a day after the ordeal, Saber and eight of the other Egyptian nationals who survived found themselves accused of being legally responsible for causing the shipwreck.

But his story and the story of the eight other Egyptian survivors, which they shared with reporters from Greek outlet OmniaTV over payphones from the prisons in Nafplio and Avlona, where they have been held since summer last year, paint a different picture.

The nine Egyptians’ stories corroborate existing evidence that points to a network of actors in Egypt and Libya involved in human trafficking across the Mediterranean and raise questions about the role of the Hellenic Coast Guard, who caused the boat to capsize by trying to tow it, according to survivor accounts.

Their tale is bookended by their interrogation and detention. Nine people cast as scapegoats for the authority’s responsibility over the shipwreck, pinned down to take the blame for one of the worst shipwrecks to have ever taken place in the Mediterranean.

Now, eight months after the wreck, Saber and the other nine Egyptians are still being held in pretrial detention.

Greek authorities closed the investigation in January, rejecting the legal defense’s request for further evidence to be considered, and now Saber and the rest of the survivors await the Greek prosecution’s decision on a trial.

* * * 

For Saber and the other Egyptian nationals who survived at Pylos, the road began months earlier. From their homes in the Nile Delta, they traveled to Libya, where they stayed in Tobruk for up to two months before boarding the vessel to endure five traumatizing days at sea that ended in the chaos of the wreck.

Subjected to preliminary investigations just a few hours after the wreck, the nine accused describe their emotional state over the course of the journey and the disorientation of being interrogated as suspects in the immediate aftermath.

On their time in Tobruk, Saber says, “We were staying in horror.” One of the smugglers there warned Saber and the other Egyptian migrants that the government could be around and storm the farm at any moment, he says.

Ashraf, another of the accused Egyptian defendants from Sharqiya, describes an ordeal of nearly three months. He spent two months in a warehouse in Libya, then 17 days in another one, before boarding the boat.

Conditions were even more troubling on the vessel.

When water ran out on the fourth day, some of the passengers started to panic. The engine started to malfunction, and the crowded vessel became increasingly chaotic, according to the nine Egyptians’ descriptions.

Day five, the day of the shipwreck, saw some of the Egyptians go through two hours of sheer terror as they did not know how to swim, while others lost their family members and friends at sea.

“The boat was like a whirlpool, and just to let you know, I can’t swim, so I lay on my back, then stood up as if standing on the ground. I did not sink. My body was barely upright and going up and down in the water. But I did not sink and was seeing everything happening in front of me: the boat’s pulpit rising up from the water, more than 200 people trying to hold on to it, and all people calling for help, from children to teenagers to men, everyone,” Saber said.

After being rescued and taken to the storage units in Kalamata, the Greek coast guard woke them up only hours later. They were asked if they wanted to call their families, but were led instead to a police station nearby.

It was there that they found themselves accused of smuggling, aggravated by the deaths of passengers, causing a shipwreck, irregular entry, and forming and being involved in a criminal organization.

Dazed as they were, the accused survivors recall being pressured during their interrogation. Saber recalls that the Greek authority-appointed translator asked him to designate five or six boat passengers as responsible in order to be allowed back to the camp. Otherwise, the translator said, Saber himself would go to trial.

But Saber’s brother-in-law told Mada Masr at the time of the wreck and his brother’s arrest that Saber had arrived in Libya just like all the other passengers on the Pylos boat, who had hoped to make it to Europe.

Those accused of human trafficking in Greece have been subject to an established pattern of human rights infractions during their arrest and preliminary investigations, OmniaTV previously reported. Practices such as arbitrary arrest, violence and coercion, limited or no access to an interpreter or legal support, and difficulties in accessing asylum application processes during detention are regular.

The nine Egyptians say they were pressured to sign their names on documents without being aware of their contents. When some inquired, the translator would tell them that the documents were part of bureaucratic procedures for their asylum applications, while others were told, moments after they were accused of smuggling and causing the shipwreck, that they were signing on to their official statements.

Those who refused to sign or showed signs of hesitance say they were yelled at by the interrogator, the translator and a police officer. In other cases, the translator signed in their place. These forced statements, extracted by the Hellenic Coast Guard from the nine Egyptians under duress, were later submitted to the investigating authorities.

The survivors requested support and their own translator from the Egyptian embassy, they said, but were only met by the embassy commissioner when they were first presented to investigating authorities. They say he promised to send them a translator the next day, reassured them, and said that he knows it is not their fault.

When Mada Masr contacted the consul for comment, Egyptian consul in Greece George Elini said, “They are our children, just like our brothers, it is a professional as well as national duty that we take their circumstances into consideration.”

Elini stated that the consulate is in contact with the Greek authorities to follow up closely with the detainees, their families as well as lawyers, and said that support has been provided to them, whether personal or case related, and the consul has visited them four times since their detention.

He refrained from offering additional details on their detention or legal situation.

Mada Masr could not reach the nine Egyptians for additional comment on any support they have received since they were in detention.

During the judicial investigation, statements were taken from only nine other people who survived the Pylos wreck. Their statements were nearly identical in the first instance, with almost word-for-word replications in some of the testimonies, according to reporting by Greek outlet EFSYN. Parts of the testimonies that implicated the Hellenic Coast Guard as responsible for causing the boat to sink by towing it were ignored.

Two survivors, Ahmed and Mosaab, later told news outlets that a coastguard had instructed all of the survivors to say that the nine Egyptian men were to blame for trafficking them. “They were imprisoned and wrongly accused by the Greek authorities in an attempt to cover up their crime,” says Mosaab.

In their personal accounts, given in the later weeks to OmniaTV reporters, the evidence presented to the nine accused survivors as proof of their culpability for the wreck and for smuggling is slim.

Investigators pointed to their conduct on the boat as proof of their criminal responsibility, the nine say.

They offered other passengers water? This represents authority over the vessel. They stood up or even moved around the vessel to keep its balance as it sunk? They were therefore considered the leaders of the entire journey.

“What’s wrong with helping a thirsty child?” asks Magdy, a 27-year-old metal artisan, while speaking to OmniaTV reporters.

He recalls jumping into the sea to fetch the ropes thrown by a commercial vessel offering water to the migrants on the Pylos boat a few hours before the boat capsized. 

It’s for this that Magdy and some of the eight other defendants are accused of being the boat’s crew members, despite the fact that all survivors of the shipwreck unanimously agreed that the smugglers put them on the boat back in Libya and left them to sail alone.

When asked by the translator during the preliminary investigation if he was the captain, Nagy, a 40-year-old painting laborer, says, “All I did was help people sit down. Children. I had 10 children next to me and other people. We were moving back and forth on the boat, trying to keep the balance.”

But in the interviews they gave to OmniaTV reporters, the accused argued that other survivors, including their relatives and friends, could prove their innocence if questioned and testify that they started the journey together and paid the same fees, nearly $5000 each, to smugglers in Egypt and Libya.

Most of the nine Egyptians agreed that another of the Pylos boat’s passengers, whom they described as a Syrian national who made the rescue call to the Greek and Italian coast guards, would be able to testify to the fact that they were not crew members.

Meanwhile a number of the Egyptians describe others as having been in positions of authority on the boat, with their descriptions coalescing around a figure they call “the captain,” a “child,” not older than 18 or 19 years of age, who had his face covered most of the time.

But according to Omnia TV’s reporting, the Greek prosecutor only took notice of the nine survivors’ testimonies they recorded out of the 104 total rescued passengers and rejected the lawyers’ request for more testimonies to be collected and for multiple other types of valuable forensic and anecdotal evidence to be taken into account.

According to a recent study by Borderline Europe, “smuggled people themselves, including asylum seekers, are systematically convicted of smuggling because they ‘allegedly’ drove or assisted in driving the boat or car.” The study reveals that at least 1,374 people were arrested for smuggling in 2022.

“All the charges are unfounded. I don’t know how they are accused of being crew members,” said the wife of Nagy, a 40-year-old painting laborer from Menoufia, while speaking to Mada Masr after Greek authorities closed the investigation in January.

Gamal, a 25-year-old from Tanta — one of the nine detained who could now stand trial for smuggling — also says that more evidence could be found easily.

“The families of those who died are enough. If you trust the testimonies of the families of those who died, they will tell you where the truth is and who those people [the smugglers] are,” he says.

The name of a Libyan man who owns the farm where they stayed in Tobruk, as well as the name of the Egyptian smuggler from Menoufia, also residing in Libya, who guided some in the journey, are mentioned by most of the nine accused survivors in their interviews.

Regardless, Greek authorities have proceeded in the investigation.

Newly-appointed lawyers helped the nine accused defendants lodge appeals against their arrest warrants and request an end to their pretrial detention.

They also requested the collection and investigation of additional evidence, specifically regarding 30 points, which include collecting additional statements from other survivors of the shipwreck.

Some of this evidence could unlock a clearer picture of who is responsible for the deaths of over 600 people off the Greek coast.

But the requests were later rejected by the investigator of Kalamata on the grounds that they were “substantially unfounded.”

“There is still no determined date for their trial, and the lawyers, who are very clear, said it could be anytime in these 18 months,” Nagy’s wife told Mada Masr. But she is scared about the potential outcomes.

“My husband heard that sentences could go up to 50 and 100 years,” she says, noting what the cumulative output of the multiple charges might come to.

“When he told me, I said that since he didn’t do anything, then God would be with him,” she adds.

Now, the defendants await a potential referral to trial with bated breath.

*Pseudonyms are used in place of the names of the nine Egyptian survivors detained in Greece.

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