Defense team says 9 Egyptians accused of causing deadly shipwreck misidentified as crew

ATHENS, Greece: The legal defense team for nine Egyptian men due to go on trial in southern Greece next week accused of causing one of the Mediterranean’s deadliest shipwrecks said Thursday they will argue that Greece has no jurisdiction in the case, and insisted their clients were innocent survivors who have been unjustly prosecuted.

The nine, whose ages range from early 20s to early 40s, are due to go on trial in the southern city of Kalamata on May 21 on a series of charges, including migrant smuggling, participation in a criminal organization and causing a deadly shipwreck. They face multiple life sentences if convicted.

The Adriana, an overcrowded fishing trawler, had been sailing from Libya to Italy with hundreds of asylum-seekers on board when it sank on June 14 in international waters off the southwestern coast of Greece.

The exact number of people on board has never been established, but estimates range from around 500 to more than 700. Only 104 people survived — all men and boys from Syria, Egypt, Pakistan and two Palestinians — and about 80 bodies were recovered. 

The vessel sank in one of the Mediterranean’s deepest areas, making recovery efforts all but impossible.

The Greek lawyers who make up the defense team spoke during a news conference in Athens on Thursday. They maintained their clients’ innocence, saying all nine defendants had been paying passengers who had been misidentified as crew members by other survivors who gave testimonies under duress just hours after having been rescued.

The nine “are random people, smuggled people who paid the same amounts as all the others to take this trip to Italy aiming for a better life, and they are accused of being part of the smuggling team,” lawyer and defense team member Vicky Aggelidou said.

Dimitris Choulis, another lawyer and member of the legal team, said that Greek authorities named the defendants as crew members following testimonies by nine other survivors who identified them for having done things as simple as handing bottles of water or pieces of fruit to other passengers.

“For nearly a year now, nine people have been in prison without knowing what they are in prison for,” Choulis said.

“For me, it is very sad to visit and see people in prison who do not understand why they are there,” he added.

While the Adriana was sailing in international waters, the area was within Greece’s search and rescue zone of responsibility. Greece’s coast guard had been shadowing the vessel for a full day without attempting a rescue of those on board. A patrol boat and at least two merchant ships were in the vicinity when the trawler capsized and sank.

In the aftermath of the sinking, some survivors said the coast guard had been attempting to tow the boat when it sank, and rights activists have accused Greek authorities of triggering the shipwreck while attempting to tow the boat out of Greece’s zone of responsibility.

Greek authorities have rejected accusations of triggering the shipwreck and have insisted the trawler’s crew members had refused to accept help from the nearby merchant ships and from the Greek coast guard.

A separate investigation being carried out by Greece’s naval court hasn’t yet reached any conclusion, and the defense team hasn’t been given any access to any part of it.

The Egyptians’ defense team also argues that because the shipwreck occurred in international waters, Greek courts don’t have jurisdiction to try the case, and the defense will move to have the case dismissed on those grounds when the trial opens in Kalamata next week.

Greece lies along one of the most popular routes into the European Union for people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. While most of those cross into the country’s eastern Aegean Sea islands from the nearby Turkish coast, others try to skirt Greece altogether and head from north Africa to Italy across the longer and more dangerous Mediterranean route.

On Thursday, Greece’s coast guard said that 42 people had been rescued and another three were believed to be missing after a boat carrying migrants sent out a distress call while sailing south of the Greek island of Crete.

Officials said they were alerted by the Italian coast guard overnight about a boat in distress 27 nautical miles (31 miles or 50 kilometers) south of Crete. Greece’s coast guard said that 40 people were rescued by nearby ships, and another two were rescued by a Greek navy helicopter.

A search and rescue operation was underway for three people reported by survivors as still missing. It wasn’t immediately clear what kind of vessel the passengers had been on, or why the boat sent out a distress call.

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