Aegean Migrant Solidarity: Report exposes how the Greek court system is condemning asylum-seekers

Migrants waiting at Mytilene port in front of a confiscated fishing boat that was used in a smuggling operation, January 2016. Photo: Ralf Henning.
Migrants waiting at Mytilene port in front of a confiscated fishing boat that was used in a smuggling operation, January 2016. Photo: Ralf Henning.

Press Release, Aegean Migrant Solidarity, Mytilene, Dec. 16 2020

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Court observers and researchers reveal that the Greek court system is condemning asylum-seekers, as well as those on the bottom rung of smuggling networks, to harsh prison sentences — according to standards that 'fail to adhere to the requirements of a fair trial'  — for steering migrant boats to Greek islands.

The Greek criminal justice system is giving lifelong prison sentences to people crossing the Aegean into Europe, according to a new report, Incarcerating the Marginalized, co-authored by Aegean Migrant Solidarity, borderline-europe and Deportation Monitoring Aegean.

The report compiles five years of trial monitoring for those accused of ‘facilitating illegal entry’. It reveals that scandalously harsh prison sentences are handed out, and analyses the increasingly punitive evolution of European and Greek laws on smuggling, resulting in courts defining persons seeking refuge in Europe as smugglers. The courts also fail to provide a fair trial to Turkish citizens, those at the bottom of smuggling networks, who drive the boats from Turkey to the Greek islands for a few hundred euros. Court verdicts based on a zero-tolerance policy yield outrageous results, while failing to challenge smuggling networks.

Incarcerating the Marginalized exposes the extent to which migrants disappear into Greek prisons without receiving a fair trial. As of January 2019, those convicted of ‘facilitating illegal entry’ to Greece were the second largest category of prisoners in the country, a figure that has increased by 100% since the 2016 implementation of the EU-Turkey deal. Those persons steering boats from Turkey are routinely denounced as smugglers. But in fact, smuggling networks coerced many of them into steering the boat, sometimes at gunpoint. Some were accused after making distress calls to the Greek Coast Guard while their boat was sinking. Others were accused only because of their nationality. The criteria for accusations are arbitrary. In any case, people report that they were immediately found guilty and faced violence from the police and Coast Guard as soon as they were accused. According to one interviewee: “I was beaten from the moment I was arrested at sea until arriving at the police station.”

The report shows how defendants are put on trial at breakneck speed without adequate legal representation. In 48 trials, all persons charged with human smuggling were found guilty and handed extraordinarily severe prison sentences and money penalties, averaging 48.65 years in jail and nearly 400,000 euro in fines. Many of the accused did not receive an individual trial, but were grouped and then sentenced together. The average length of time in these trials was 27 minutes for an individual trial and 48 minutes for a joint trial with more than one defendant.

According to Runbir Serkepkani, one of the report’s authors: ‘It does not matter if there is no evidence against you, or if nobody saw you steering the boat. If the Coast Guard scapegoats you, the courts will imprison you. Even if there are mitigating circumstances, the prevailing attitude of the judges makes it impossible to get a reduced sentence.’

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For more information, contact: 

Aegean Migrant Solidarity: lesvos@cpt.org 

borderline-europe: hg@borderline-europe.de 

Deportation Monitoring Aegean: dm-aegean@bordermonitoring.eu