After the tragic shipwreck on Christmas Eve 2021 near the Greek island of Paros, 39-year-old Kheiraldin A. and 32-year-old Abdallah J. and Mohamad B. were arrested as smugglers for piloting the boat. They have been held in Chios prison since then and have not seen any of their family members.
When family members, supporters and trial observers entered the courtroom on 5 May, the three accused were sitting handcuffed to each other in the back of the hall. Only two family members, Kheiraldin’s brother and Mohamad’s uncle, had the necessary papers and the financial means to travel to Greece in order to attend the trial. The previous day, the accused were only allowed to visit with family members ten minutes and forbidden to talk to their families on the phone.
The trial began at 9:45am, only to be paused immediately because neither the sole witness for the prosecution, a port police officer, nor an interpreter for the defendants was present. The court considered adjourning the trial, but decided against it and requested a translator.
The trial resumed at 10:30am with the presence of a translator, where the defendants’ lawyers requested that the charges against their clients be amended. They were charged with “facilitating unauthorised entry” because they had piloted the boat, but also with “criminal association” and “causing a shipwreck,” a conviction that would bear responsibility for the deaths of 18 people. Consequently, they faced the incredible sentence of 18 times life imprisonment. The defence demanded that the charges of criminal association and causing a shipwreck be dropped and the main charge of “facilitating unauthorised entry” to be converted from a felony to a misdemeanor. They stressed that there was no evidence whatsoever that the three organized the journey and had acted for profit. Quite the contrary, they had been forced into this position because of their financial situation.
Six testimonies of other passengers on the boat were read out in which they had testified that it was others, not the three accused, who had organized the trip and received the money from them. The lawyers pointed out that the nicknames of the smugglers mentioned in the passengers’ testimonies had also appeared in other trials.
After that, the two family members in attendance testified. They reported on the difficult living conditions for Syrians in Turkey, the individual stories of the defendants and the great financial difficulties they had faced.
The third witness for the defense, a sea rescuer who testified based on his experience, confirmed that it is common practice that refugees have to steer the boat themselves, since those who are making money from the journeys do not want to be arrested nor risk their lives by traveling on the boat. He also said that in the last two years, there has been a huge increase in the number of particularly dangerous trips from Turkey to Italy.
The accused testified that they had only agreed to pilot the boat because they could not pay the 7,000 to 10,000 Euros that the trip cost. All three had hoped to escape the deteriorating living conditions in Turkey and the increasing threat of deportation to Syria, a country from which they had fled massacres and military recruitment. Kheiraldin, in particular, decided to risk his life for his daughter who needs urgent medical treatment that she cannot receive in Turkey. They also stated that before the trip they were held for days in a house with bars, guarded by armed persons. When they saw the condition of the boat and the number of people on board, they refused to steer it, but were forced by threats against them and their families.
In his closing argument, the prosecutor stated that, according to the law, the three defendants must be found guilty of “facilitating the unauthorized entry of third-country nationals with a risk to human life.” However, to everyone’s surprise, he stressed that the law itself is problematic, as it does not take into account cases such as that of the defendants, who are forced to take themselves and others to other countries without acting for profit. He therefore stated that he would recognize mitigating circumstances and recommended that the accused be acquitted of the charges of “causing a shipwreck” and “criminal association.” The judges ruled accordingly. The recognition of mitigating circumstances, no improper motives, and previous lawful living saved the defendants from life sentences. In cases involving loss of life during a shipwreck, It is rare to see such charges dropped. By avoiding the life sentences, the defendants will have a higher chance of reducing their sentence at the appeal stage.
Kheiraldin was sentenced to 187 years as the “captain” and Mohamad and Abdallah to 126 years as the “assistants”. These sentences were set for the “captain” as: 10 years basic sentence for the felony and 3 years extra for each person on board the boat (59 persons). Therefore 10+3×59 = 187 years. For the two “assistants,” the sentence was defined as: 8 years as a basic sentence for the felony and 2 years for each person on board the boat (59 persons). Thus 8+2×59 = 126 years.
They appealed the decision.
On the same day of the trial, Mohamad learned that his father had been executed by Assad’s forces. “Mohamad does not know what he should think about now, his father or his kids,” commented his uncle, Abdulsalam B. When family members visited the three after the trial, they were not allowed to touch or hug them. Abdallah’s mother in Syria was on the phone but was not allowed to speak to her son.
Abdallah, Kheiraldin and Mohamad have been transferred back to Chios prison. There, they cannot be visited by their children or wives as they live in Turkey and Syria and are not allowed to travel to Greece.
Osama A., brother of Kheiraldin: “My brother has tried three times to reach Greece by land, but he was pushed back each time. So he finally decided to take a boat and risk his own life to save his daughter. There are many victims like Kheiraldin. The real smugglers never go on the boat. Europe needs to open the door for refugees so they don’t have to be smuggled.”
Abdulsalam B., uncle of Mohamad: “This was not a fair trial. They convicted the victims. Mohamad’s wife almost fainted when she heard the news. Who will now support their families? The court also convicted the families.”
Christina Karvouni, Aegean Migrant Solidarity: “Although this trial had some positive elements that are not found in other similar cases, such as the recognition that the accused are also victims of the charges against them, the problem is in the law itself. As it is yet another law that criminalizes migration with huge penalties and leaves those who profit from the pain and the need of migrants unchallenged. Τhis law must be changed immediately, as it continues to destroy the lives of people who are innocent.”
Julia Winkler, borderline-europe: “Three refugees are sentenced to over 100 years in prison, even though the defence, prosecution and judges all agree that all they did was steer a boat with other refugees. This trial makes it particularly clear that the problem is not abuse or misinterpretation of the law, but the law itself, and that it was made precisely to criminalise those it claims to protect – people who migrate.”
Oda Becker, You Can’t Evict Solidarity: “The sentence is cruel and unfortunately not an isolated case. We see numerous cases where people seeking protection are arbitrarily and innocently sentenced to many years in prison. This practice and the illegal pushbacks of migrants that have long been part of the inhumane EU border regime are becoming increasingly brutal. On 18 May, the trial of a father whose son drowned during the crossing will take place in Samos. He now faces up to 10 years in prison for endangering the life of his child. We stand in solidarity with the defendants. Migration is not a crime!
Sascha Girke, Iuventa: “While we, the Iuventa crew and all other European sea rescuers, get a lot of attention and support when we are criminalized for our interventions, it is everyday practice at European courts and hardly worth a headline when people on the move are sent to prison for many years just because they steered a boat with which they brought themselves and others to Europe. This legalized injustice must, like the criminalisation of solidarity, become a focus of political struggle.”
Dimitris Choulis, one of the lawyers of the Paros3: “Having your (innocent) clients convicted in a total of 439 years in prison and consider it a win! This is the madness of the draconian laws of fortress Europe. Even if they have the best intentions, courts will continue sentencing innocent people to thousands of years until the law changes. Fortress Europe causes death and imprisonment to the most vulnerable. We need a change of legislation. Seeking asylum is not a crime.”
Aegean Migrant Solidarity, borderline-europe, You Can’t Evict Solidarity and the Iuventa Crew will continue to support Kheiraldin, Mohamad and Abdallah and their families in their appeal trial and in the meantime.
We demand their immediate release from prison, freedom for all those arrested for boat driving and an end to the criminalization of migration and incarceration of people on the move!
The three fathers had tried to reach Italy directly in order to avoid Greek territory and thus violent and illegal push-backs οr to avoid being trapped on the Greek islands. Unable to pay for the particularly expensive trip, the three men agreed to pilot the boat with about 80 other people in return for a cheaper fare. Close to the Greek island of Paros, the boat capsized, leading to the death of 18 people. Instead of receiving psychological care after this traumatic experience, Kheiraldin, Abdallah and Mohamad were arrested.