Refugees Accused of Running Rubber Dinghies in Greek Waters to Appeal Life Sentences | Global Development

Hanad Abdi Mohammad is haunted by nightmares.

They begin as soon as he opens his eyes in a squatted, whitewashed prison cell on the Greek island of Chios.

“I have the same thought every time I wake up and it’s ‘When will I taste freedom again?'” said the Somali. “I think of my wife and my children. It fills me with hope.

His recurring nightmare concerns the event that resulted in his conviction for human trafficking and his staggering 146 years in prison.

Mohammad, 28, recently recalled how human traffickers abandoned the dinghy carrying him and other refugees shortly after the craft left Turkish shores.

“It was a terrible night,” he told a delegation of MEPs and journalists visiting the prison director’s office. “I was sitting right next to the smuggler when he threatened me saying ‘you’re driving’. I realize now that if I hadn’t, we would all be drowned.

In another cell less than 10 meters away were two Afghan men, Amir Zahiri and Akif Rasuli, also in their twenties and also serving life sentences. In September 2020, both were found guilty of “facilitating the illegal entry” of undocumented refugees and of “causing shipwreck” and sentenced to 50 years.

They too have protested their innocence, insisting that they are genuine refugees who have been wrongly accused of crimes they did not commit.

On Friday, the pair were due to appeal their prison sentences to a three-member tribunal sitting in Lesbos. After hours of waiting, the men were told the hearing would be rescheduled for April 7.

The three are far from alone. Before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, asylum seekers convicted of human trafficking were the second largest category of detainees in Greece, according to a report co-authored by several solidarity groups.

Greek MEP Stelios Kouloglou (left) outside the Lesvos Court of Appeal with human rights lawyer Alexandros Georgoulis. Photograph: Helena Smith/The Guardian

“Unfortunately, our prisons are full of them,” said Alexandros Georgoulis, one of the lawyers representing the Chios trio. “I have acted for so many people who have spent years in prisons waiting, like these men, for their pleas to be heard. This is because almost every boat that comes to our islands suffers the same fate. S ‘there is no driver, the Hellenic Police or the Coast Guard will randomly choose whoever is at the helm of the ship and appoint him captain of the boat, automatically opening the way to very serious criminal charges.

The short but often perilous sea crossing from Turkey has long been a popular point of entry into Europe for people fleeing war, poverty and persecution in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. In 2014, shortly before an estimated 870,000 Syrians landed on the Aegean islands en route to Europe, Athens sought to clamp down on human trafficking rings along the Turkish coast with draconian legislation. . The smugglers were given unprecedentedly harsh sentences, with sentences ranging from 10 years for each trafficked person on board to life imprisonment if they died during the journey.

Smuggling networks in Turkey have responded by persuading or forcing their human cargo to steer the boats themselves, rights groups say, citing testimonies from arriving asylum seekers.

“Mohammad was forced at gunpoint to steer the boat,” Georgoulis said, explaining that when the Somali then called the Turkish Coast Guard for help, the call was met with a patrol boat which violently surrounded the ship and pushed it towards Greece. In the ensuing chaos, as the dinghy began to take on water and capsize, two of its passengers fell overboard. Their death by drowning further extended Mohammad’s sentence.

For human rights lawyers, viewing refugees as traffickers is symptomatic of a broader policy aimed squarely at preventing men, women and children from attempting to make such journeys.

Invariably, those caught piloting boats are tried at breakneck speed without adequate legal representation and with harsh sentences handed down on flimsy evidence, the lawyers argued.

Amir Zahiri and Akif Razuli are taken under police escort to the Lesbos Court of Appeal.
Amir Zahiri and Akif Razuli are taken under police escort to the Lesbos Court of Appeal. Photograph: Helena Smith/The Guardian

The number of asylum seekers convicted of people smuggling each year in Greece is believed to have doubled since March 2016, when the EU struck a controversial deal with Ankara to curb migrant flows.

MEPs expressed concern about whether refugees accused of such crimes receive fair trials. Four MEPs traveled to Lesbos to attend Friday’s hearing.

“What happened is completely unfair,” said Stelios Kouloglou, an MEP from Greece’s main opposition, left-wing Syriza party, which is campaigning for the cases to be raised in the European Parliament. “It is outrageous that the authorities seek to deter asylum seekers by targeting people in this way. Neither Mohammad nor the Afghans had even seen the sea before boarding these boats.

Zahiri was with his pregnant wife and child when he made the Aegean crossing – far from the profile of a professional smuggler, lawyers claim. Rasuli still struggles to find the words as he recounts his first ordeal in court 18 months ago.

“No one showed up for the hearing, not even the coastguard official who testified against us,” he said, speaking from a police cell in Mytilene where the Afghans had been transferred. before the trial. ” I still do not understand. The court only allowed me to speak for a minute and then sentenced me to 50 years in prison.

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