9 July 2021
The trial of four of the six Afghan youth—all teenagers, all of Hazara origin—accused of burning down Moria camp last September, collectively known as the Moria 6, was held on 11 June 2021 in Chios Island. Although five of the six were minors, only two of them were recognized as such and were tried in Mytilene juvenile court. The case of these two was heard in March 2021 and they were sentenced to five years imprisonment each.
The remaining four were on trial for ‘arson endangering the life of an unknown number of people’, ‘destruction of public property’ and ‘membership of a criminal group’. Before the trial, more than seventy solidarity groups and non-governmental organizations signed an open call for a fair and transparent trial.
The trial took place behind closed doors, only permitting a maximum of 15 people in the room, ostensibly due to Covid-19 measures. Authorities prevented entry to an accredited international legal observation team as well as several journalists, however, the four defendants were accompanied by at least six police officers. Scandalously, the legal defence team was subjected to a thorough search on entry to the court.
The court began with three procedural objections by the lawyers. The first of these was that three of the four young people ought to be tried in juvenile court because they were under the age of eighteen at the time of the fire. Although the defence presented to the court various documents proving their age, the court rejected them, crediting instead an ‘expert’ social scientist with a background in criminology and anthropology, who claimed they were adults on the basis of an x-ray examination. This social scientist had no medical background, and no authority to make such an assessment. The second objection, also rejected, was that the court notice given to the defendants was in Greek and was not translated into a language the young men could understand. The third objection, rejected again and which determined the fate of the case, was the request that the testimony of the sole eyewitness should not be taken into account because he was not present at the court and no attempt had been made to find him.
Of the 31 witnesses called for questioning, fifteen attended the hearing, including police and firefighters, residents of Moria village who lost property on their land as a result of the fire, employees of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), and non-governmental organization employees who had witnessed the fire closely. All their narratives were contradictory. The defendants were accused of starting a fire on 8 September 2020 in a section of the camp that, according to the report of the Fire Department, did not burn until the next day. All prosecution witnesses had different accounts of these chaotic days. The only point of agreement was that none of the witnesses knew the four accused men.
So why were these young people arrested? Where was this witness for the prosecution, whose testimony would be read despite his absence, as it had been during the March 2021 hearing for the two co-accused minors? Since 2016, police informants living in Moria camp have broken mass protests or helped the state’s case for prosecution. The system, which turns one migrant hostile towards another, rewards the collaborator with an accelerated asylum procedure and the ability to leave the islands for the mainland much faster. This witness left Greece for the price of six destroyed lives.
Is it a coincidence that all six of the young men are from the Hazara ethnic group? The witness, a former Afghan community leader in Moria camp, was a member of the Pashtun community. The persecution of the Hazaras is now on the agenda again, under the name of genocide. Unfortunately, their persecution has no borders. Along with people from African states, Hazaras were those who suffered the most from increasing incidents of violence inside the camps in early 2020. On 21 April 2020, the Hazara community demonstrated against the violence they faced, following the death of a 16-year-old Hazara boy who was stabbed during a fight and four others were seriously injured. Of course, the relationship between Hazara and Pashtun groups is too deep to cover in the scope of this article, but it would be just as pointless to expect this conflict, more than a century old, to be resolved in a hellish camp in Europe, between the bars of a prison.
Several of the defence witnesses who were present at the court stated that they felt humiliated by the way that they were treated and that they were spoken to aggressively, made to feel that they had almost started the fire themselves. Every time a witness mentioned the conditions in Moria camp they were cut off by claims from both the prosecutor and the chief of the court that the conditions had nothing to do with the case. One witness, an expert on Hazara-Pashtun relations, explained the history of tension between the Hazara and Pashtun communities. His statement was not taken into account. He was given a chilling answer: “Aren't you Hazara? How do we know you don't hate the Pashtuns and blame the Pashtun leader?” Another witness, an employee of an NGO of non-Greek nationality, was interrupted by the question, “What would you say about your own government’s responsibility here?” A Greek journalist was attacked with the words “If you are a good journalist, why couldn’t you find out who started the fire?” The last witness, a sociologist professor from the University of the Aegean, tried to talk about the conditions in Moria camp. He was asked by the court, “Do you accept that all this is a European problem?”
At the end of the first 12-hour day, the four youths were taken away in police cars. Those of us standing in solidarity with them chanted Azadi (Freedom), accompanied by the Greek slogan: “Το πάθος για τη λευτεριά, είναι δυνατότερο από όλα τα κελιά” (The passion for freedom is stronger than all cages). The verdict came the following day, Saturday 12 June at around 15:00. The teenagers were all sentenced to ten years in prison. They were found guilty on all charges except membership of a criminal group. The extraordinary efforts of the defence team had failed. According to the lawyers, who spoke outside the court after the verdict, ‘This unfair decision is even worse than the punishment because it kills the law and denies its very existence.”
It is clear that the police will go to great lengths to dismantle solidarity with criminalized migrants. As we disembarked the ferry from Lesvos to Chios, officers from the port authority targeted only those of us travelling to stand with the accused, taking us for ‘routine checks’ taking our passports and noting our information. Later, an article appeared in the Greek press incorrectly smearing the court supporters as being subject to police investigations for ‘espionage’, ‘smuggling of migrants’ and ‘other criminal charges’.
On 22 June, the trial of 15 young people began in Mytilene court, Lesvos. Known as the Vial 15, they were held responsible for the fire that broke out in Vial camp in Chios in April 2020. Again, members of Aegean Migrant Solidarity faced police harassment for attempting to monitor the court procedure. It is clear that holding trials on different islands around the Aegean is a tactic to divide solidarity. Despite this, members of the Lesvos migrant solidarity movement attended the trial, alongside defence lawyers from Samos and Chios. Although lawyers, activists and human rights defenders are being criminalized for seeking justice, these oppressive dynamics are connecting people and encouraging solidarity between the islands.
Read more about the systematic criminalization of migrants in our report, ‘Incarcerating the Marginalized’