MEDITERRANEAN: Refugees Incarcerated without trial – a report on CPT's visit to the Greek island of Chios

11 November 2016
MEDITERRANEAN: Refugees Incarcerated without trial – a report on CPT's visit to the Greek island of Chios  

by Ramyar Hassani, Project Coordinator, CPT Mediterranean 

[Note: This release has been adapted for CPTnet.  The original is available on the CPT-Mediterranean’s website.] 

Photo: Amnesty International

We were welcomed into the warden’s office, the walls decorated with orthodox icons, mostly consisting of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and one image of The Last Supper hanging above the warden’s desk. We noticed that the clock on the wall was dead. Hours have no meaning in this prison, perhaps years do. The contraband detector is in the room keeping anyone from smoking here, unlike in many other public offices in Greece. Clearly, the economic crisis hit this office as the old lockers, the warden’s dusty desk and the grimy fringes on the aging curtains prove.

While we scanned the room, waiting to meet with the prisoners, Sabri arrived.  He was only 24, but looked much older—perhaps as a result of the unbearable sorrows he had experienced since the beginning of the Syrian civil war or simply because his dream of a safer life has disappeared in this prison. In either case the uncertainty and his approaching court date had made him anxious. He was told that his passport and other belongings were not in the police station even though they were confiscated when he was arrested. According to Sabri, his trial would be held on 17 October 2016 on the Greek island of Chios. With weary eyes he pled for our help getting his six stranded family members out of Greece.

Mohammad Said, 24, had been imprisoned for three months, waiting for his court date. He arrived in Greece as the only Syrian on the boat with sixteen Iranians. “Our boat was rescued by a NATO vessel and I was accused of being the smuggler by the Iranians on the boat,” he said. “Thinking I was Turkish, the Greek Coast Guard beat me, and later used violence during my interrogation.” The actual Turkish smuggler threatened Mohammad and the others at gunpoint when they asked the smuggler why he was not keeping his promise to pilot the boat to Greece. Instead, the refugees onboard had to drive the boat themselves.  Smugglers force the refugees to steer the boat. In most cases the only way to save the passengers is for someone—anyone—to grab the helm and steer.

Other incarcerated refugees often asked Mohammad to act as an Arabic-English translator. His face, void of emotion, was not a sign of confession, but rather of his loss of hope in the land where he sought asylum. His aunt has lived with her family in Athens for the past fifteen years. Mohammad asked if he could contact her during the investigations but the authorities denied his request. “I was a technician in Syria. When it got more dangerous and I was forced to flee, I had to sell my computer to pay the smuggler’s fee of $300.” He went silent for a moment and then continued, “I fled the war with the intention of seeking refuge, but I ended up in prison.”

Since the EU-Turkey deal, many refugees are stranded on various Greek islands. Because of this, forged documents and unlawful attempts to get onto the ferries have increased. Generally, attempts of hiding in or under trucks are discovered, and the people seeking asylum are pursued, arrested and beaten.

Ziab Al Ahmad, currently a resident of Malta but originally from Homs, Syria met with us next. His wife and two children still live on Malta. He misses his family. His children are seven and ten months. “I came to Greece to take my sisters from Mytilene to Athens with forged documents, but I was arrested as soon as I got off of the ferry.” Ziab had the forged papers in his pocket when he was arrested and has received no information regarding his seventeen and nineteen-year-old sisters.

Another major obstacle faced by detained refugees is the legal assistance—or lack thereof. The state assigns lawyers, but the contact between lawyer and client is disturbingly infrequent, which makes it very hard for lawyers to learn about the specific case and adequately defend their clients.

Hussain has four siblings living in Germany. “My sister and brother came and attended my trial. I submitted all the necessary documents to prove that I am a refugee and not a smuggler, but they were ignored and I was still sentenced to seventeen years imprisonment,” ten years of which he must be incarcerated. He talked without ceasing as he tried to use his time to plea for as much help as he could: “I left my wife in Turkey, and she gave birth to my youngest child while I was in prison. I was not able to support her at all. The only time I saw my lawyer was for ten minutes on the day of my trial.” Recalling this memory provoked his ire. According to the court minutes, he supposedly took the boat and headed back towards Turkey before being arrested, but he did not mention this to us in our conversation.

Abdollah was at the dentist when riots started in Soda, a camp on Chios. He went back to his tent and received a call from his mother, stepping out of his tent to talk with her. When he returned, his tent and all of his belongings were on fire. “I was arrested, interrogated and taken directly to the prison.” He continued, confused, “I told them that if I set fire to any part of the camp I would be shown in the security videos, but they ignored me.” Abdollah went on, louder now, “I have been here for five months without a trial. My fiancé is still in Soda. I have been granted asylum in Greece and I never wanted to be transferred to Athens.” Many of the refugees were demanding this transfer a few days prior to the protests that left the camp in ashes. He sighed and let his palms rest on his thighs hopelessly, “I studied law for two years and I know what is right and what is wrong.”

Next we met with Rasid. “My family had to go back to Syria,” he told us. “I was arrested and they had no income to support themselves in Turkey. I have no contact with them because they are living in an area under ISIS control.” Rasid was arrested while trying to head back to Turkey. He claimed that his intention was to help transfer the other refugees who were stranded on the Turkish coast to Greece. He was sentenced to nineteen years in prison of which he has to remain incarcerated for ten years.

Often, the refugees who are imprisoned or arrested for human smuggling are unaware that steering a refugee boat breaks current international law, even in a matter of life and death.

Mohammad Saad’s exhausted eyes lit up when he shook hands with us. He was scheduled to have his trial on 17 October 2016, six months after his arrest and imprisonment for human smuggling. He was on the same boat as Sabri. “If you are an organization focusing on human rights, you probably know what ‘human rights’ means in Syria. We fled war and conflict to be safe, not to end up in jail.” He, like most, did not know that piloting the dinghy was illegal. He went on with no delay in his words, “I paid $1200 to the smugglers leaving me with no money to contact my family or follow up on the condition of my sick father. How could I be the smuggler?”

In rare cases, refugees are able to afford a private lawyer. Hiring a private lawyer, however, is not an indication of wealth. In cases like Midga’s, he and his family had to sell whatever they could, including household items, to scrape enough money together to afford a private lawyer.

Midga paid €1000 to a Greek lawyer to help him through his case, but she never showed up. He was sentenced to forty-five years in prison. “I paid $1200 to the smugglers. They took us out in a yacht and then put us on a dinghy but we were still in Turkish waters. When we crossed into Greek waters the Greek Coast Guard showed up and they arrested me.” He continued his story, “I was beaten from the moment I was arrested at sea until arriving at the police station. I was bleeding.” Midga has been in prison for fourteen months, and his wife and two-year-old daughter are still in Turkey. He has had no contact with them.

Bakir is from Aleppo and his father had been hospitalized a few weeks earlier due to heart disease. “Since I had no money and my family was with me in Turkey, I took the smuggler’s offer to steer the boat. My wife, brother and three daughters were left in Gazi Antep.” Bakir had been in prison for a year already. He was sentenced to forty-five years in prison. According to Bakir, his boat began to take water, so the refugees onboard called the coast guard. The coast guard arrived and immediately arrested Bakir.

While time passes very slowly for the prisoners, the opposite was true for our team during our visit. The warden said that he had already permitted us to stay fifteen minutes longer for conversing with the prisoners than was allowed. He asked us kindly to finish our conversation. We thanked him and said goodbye and he replied “No problem, thanks for the visit.” We passed the first door, collected our cellphones from the lockers and walked out towards the main door of the prison. After a few seconds, it opened automatically. We walked out amazed and shocked. How easily an accused person (who has not been convicted of a crime) can be incarcerated, held behind the bars and deprived of even proper legal assistance! My colleague lit his cigarette and we walked down the hills towards a cafe near our hotel.