Lesvos: Refugee faces two life sentences after surviving shipwreck and trying to save 33 lives

May 12, 2021

This Thursday, 13th May 2021, 27-year-old Mohamad H., father of four children, has to stand trial in Mytilene, Lesvos. Mohamad H., who tried to save his own life and that of the 33 passengers on board during a shipwreck, is charged by Greek authorities with endangering the life of others and causing the death of two. For this, he is facing two life sentences and a further ten years imprisonment for each passenger.

On 2nd December 2020, Mohamad H., who had fled from war in Somalia to Turkey in early 2020, tried to reach Greece on a rubber boat together with 33 other people, including three children. In the middle of the Aegean sea, the boat got into distress. According to the Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi, who blames the Turkish Coast Guard for the shipwreck, the group sent out a distress signal calling for help. Mohamad H., a refugee himself with no experience in seafaring, tried everything he could to prevent a shipwreck and steer the boat somehow safely ashore - this was later confirmed by the other passengers who stated that Mohamad H. tried to save everyone's life.

Sadly, he did not succeed. The rubber boat capsized close to the island of Lesvos. Women, men, and children were thrown into the water; two young women did not survive.

Mohamad H. and the other survivors were pulled out of the water by the Greek coast guard and brought to Mytilene port, Lesvos. There, after nearly drowning just moments before, Mohamad H. was arrested for "driving the boat" and consequently charged with the "illegal transportation of third-country nationals into Greek territory" (smuggling). Additionally, he was charged with endangering the life of 32 people under aggravating circumstances. Later on, after the missing women were found dead, he was also charged with causing the death of two. He has since been in prison awaiting trial on the island of Chios.

We condemn such blatant injustice and severe attacks on the right to asylum. With the lack of safe and legal pathways to enter Europe and claim asylum, people seeking safety have no other choice than to embark on perilous journeys.

We stand in solidarity with Mohamad H., who is clearly being used as a scapegoat to divert attention from the responsibility that the E.U. and its ever-increasing closure of borders carry for these deaths. 

Instead of being threatened with life in prison, Mohamad H. should receive the care he needs after suffering such a traumatic experience. 

Instead of being threatened with life in prison, Mohamad M. should be thanked and celebrated for trying to save the life of 33 people.

The lawyers Dimitris Choulis and Alexandros Georgoulis, who will represent Mohamad H. in his upcoming trial, state: "The Greek Law for migration is very strict - just touching the wheel is enough to be sentenced to many years in prison as a 'smuggler.' However, we have to remember that the Greek law in article 25 of the Penal Code contains the so-called 'emergency situation' as a reason not to convict a person breaking a law 'under distress and to prevent an unavoidable danger.' This argument has never been accepted by the Greek Courts so far but when the minister himself accuses the Turkish Coast Guard of causing the shipwreck, it becomes absolutely clear that the accused tried to prevent the death of more people and his 'driving' the boat wasn't a decision but a necessity. It's time to start applying all of the Greek Law and not only the parts of it that help to criminalize asylum seekers."

The case of Mohamad H. is unfortunately not an isolated case but paradigmatic for yet another facet of Europe's policy of closing borders and deterrence. As documented by CPT - Aegean Migrant Solidarity, borderline-europe, and Deportation Monitoring Aegean, the filing of such charges against migrants arriving on the Greek islands have been systematically used by the Greek state for several years.

The basis for this is Greek legislation that considers any person found to have driven a vehicle across Greek borders carrying people seeking protection as a smuggler. The arrests that follow these often-unfounded accusations of smuggling are arbitrary, and the trials flout basic standards of fairness. Police officers might accuse the person holding the tiller to steer the boat, or the one who communicated with the coast guard to call for help, or simply someone who speaks English, of being a smuggler. Without sufficient evidence, they are usually arrested upon arrival and kept in pre-trial detention for months. When their case finally comes to court, their trials average only 38 minutes in length, leading to an average sentence of 44 years and fines over 370.000 Euro. Most recently, the young Syrian K.S. was sentenced to 52 years in prison and a fine of 242.000 Euros.

While "smuggling" accusations against European sea rescuers gain a lot of media attention, the everyday practice of incarcerating non-Europeans on the Greek islands goes almost unnoticed. However, they constitute the majority of those arrested and imprisoned on allegations of "smuggling" and "aiding illegal immigration."

The initiatives borderline-europe, CPT - Aegean Migrant Solidarity, and You Can't Evict Solidarity will follow the trial in solidarity. We call on Greece and the European Union to stop criminalizing people because they are seeking safety, end the arbitrary detention of refugees and migrants accused of smuggling, and for the acquittal and immediate release of the defendant.

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