Trial of Pylos shipwreck survivors must not be a shield in the investigation of the alleged responsibilities of the Greek authorities’

The imminent trial of nine survivors of the June 2023 Pylos shipwreck off Greece raises fair trial concerns, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said today. The survivors are charged with smuggling, aggravated by the deaths of passengers, causing a shipwreck, irregular entry, and forming and membership of a criminal organization, and could face multiple life sentences if convicted. A parallel investigation into the potential liability of the Greek authorities for the shipwreck is at the preliminary stage, meaning the criminal court will have incomplete information in assessing the culpability of the defendants. The criminal trial is due to begin in Kalamata, Greece, on 21 May 2024.

“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 Coast Guard 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 severely overcrowded fishing trawler capsized on June 14, 2023, leading to the death of more than 600 of its estimated 750 passengers, mainly from Syria, Pakistan and Egypt. Research by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and numerous investigative journalists and organizations points to several failures by the Greek authorities, in the hours leading up to the shipwreck as well as serious allegations that a Hellenic Coast Guard patrol boat caused the boat to capsize while attempting to tow it.

The case against the nine Egyptian survivors, referred to as the ‘Pylos 9′ appears to be based on the theory that the poor and overcrowded state of the boat caused the shipwreck, and that the defendants were smugglers in charge of the boat and its passengers and therefore responsible for the deaths of those on board. The accused deny the charges. It is unclear whether and how the criminal court will examine the behavior of the Hellenic Coast Guard, or the allegation that the attempt to tow the boat was the direct, material cause of the shipwreck.

A separate Naval Court investigation into the potential liability of the Hellenic Coast Guard, opened in June 2023, remains at the preliminary stages. Legal nongovernmental organizations joined the case filing a complaint on behalf of 53 survivors alleging that Greek authorities were responsible for the shipwreck, and many of them have been summoned to testify. The Naval Court prosecutor’s request for forensic analysis of coast guard officers’ phones—only seized by authorities in late September 2023, over two months after the events—is still pending.

The ‘Pylos 9’ were arrested on June 15, 2023, apparently on the basis of testimonies from nine other survivors taken by Hellenic Coast Guard officers in the immediate aftermath of the traumatic shipwreck, between June 14 and 15. It is unclear whether or how many other survivors gave their accounts and whether these were evaluated before the accused were arrested and subsequently sent into pre-trial custody, on June 20.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have previously said that the fact that Coast Guard officials conducted the interviews raised concerns for the independence and integrity of the investigation, especially considering that allegations about the Coast Guard’s actions emerged soon after the shipwreck.

There are real concerns regarding the respect of fair trial standards based on questions about the integrity of the investigation and evidence, the organizations said. The speed at which the investigation against survivors was concluded, and the ‘Pylos 9’ defence lawyers’ lack of access to the Naval Court case file compound these concerns.

In separate investigations, Lighthouse ReportsSolomon and others found that various survivors’ statements to the Coast Guard, admitted as evidence, described the shipwreck in identical terms and did not include allegations about the towing attempt, suggesting that those taking the first statements may have written official pro forma accounts rather than the actual accounts provided by survivors. However, in later testimony to the Kalamata prosecutor, several of those same survivors made the allegation of the towing attempt. One survivor also told  Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that his statement to the prosecutor that the Coast Guard that had caused the fishing boat to capsize was changed to say that the boat sank due to other reasons. 

Members of the ‘Pylos 9’ defence team told the organizations that the investigating judge in the Kalamata court rejected defendants’ requests to secure further evidence, including evidence pertaining to the potential liability of the Hellenic Coast Guard, on the grounds that it falls within the jurisdiction of the Naval Court. The defendants’ lawyers have been unable to gain access to the investigation file before the Naval Court despite its clear relevance to preparing the defence. 

The judge rejected the request for analysis of any data from survivors’ mobile phones which were confiscated by Greek authorities under unclear circumstances, then reportedly discovered on the coast guard boat and seized as part of the Kalamata investigation only in July 2023. The judge also rejected motions by defence lawyers to take testimony from additional survivors, and to acquire the communications between the Hellenic Coast Guard, Frontex and the Greek Joint Rescue Coordination Center, and aerial photos of the boat prior to the shipwreck.

The separate investigation into the Hellenic Coast Guard’s potential liability should not impede the defendants’ access to crucial, and potentially exculpatory, evidence on the causes of the shipwreck, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said. The Kalamata and Naval courts should cooperate in the interests of justice, with the goal of achieving as full and credible an account of how the shipwreck occurred and identifying those responsible and any alleged fatal shortcomings in the rescue efforts.

International and European human rights law guarantees a defendant’s right to an effective defence when facing a criminal charge. Among other things, this means the defendants have the right to “adequate facilities” for preparing their defence, including “all materials that the prosecution plans to offer in court against the accused or that are exculpatory.”

The Kalamata court should guarantee that the ‘Pylos 9’ receive a fair and impartial trial, and that their full due process rights are upheld and respected. The Naval Court should advance investigations promptly, effectively and impartially and ensure the safe and effective participation of the largest possible number of survivors and relatives of victims and full collection of evidence.

“Time and again, in Greece and in other countries, racialised people who are seeking to travel to Europe end up being the only ones facing accountability in the context of migration movements,” said Adriana Tidona, Migration Researcher at Amnesty International. “The Pylos investigations and trials must serve as a turning point for this dangerous trajectory.”

After examining 81 trials in Greece, the nongovernmental group Borderline Europe found that “smuggled people themselves, including asylum seekers, are systematically convicted of smuggling because they (allegedly) drove or assisted in driving the boat or car” and denounced serious shortcomings and abuses in the context of arrests and preliminary investigations. According to the study, as of February 2023, 2,154 people were detained in Greece on suspicion of smuggling, and 90 percent of them were third country nationals. Meanwhile, serious and persistent human rights violations committed by the authorities against refugees and migrants at Greek borders – including pushbacks, arbitrary detention and torture – remain unpunished.

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