Among the prison inmates of the Greek island of Chios, three young men from Afghanistan and Somalia are serving dramatically long sentences: 50 years for two of them, a staggering 142 for the third.
But these are not violent criminals, even according to their trial verdicts. They were convicted for steering inflatable dinghies carrying them and other migrants after they say smugglers abandoned them in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece.
“I didn’t think saving people is a crime,” said Hanad Abdi Mohammad, 28, a soft-spoken Somali charged as a smuggler after arriving in Greece last December and sentenced to 142 years.
Mohammad told journalists and European Parliament lawmakers visiting the three in prison last week that he had no choice but to drive the boat. The smuggler forced him to take over, hitting him in the face and threatening him with a gun before abandoning the dinghy in rough seas. And people’s lives were at stake. Even with hindsight, he said, “I would do it again, as long as I am saving lives.”
Critics say the men’s cases, as well as prosecutions or threats of criminal proceedings against aid workers, illustrate the expanding arsenal of techniques authorities in Greece and other countries are using to deter asylum-seekers.
“It’s not possible that someone who comes to claim asylum in Greece is threatened with such heavy sentences simply because they were forced, by circumstances or pressure, to take over handling a boat,” said Alexandros Georgoulis, one of the lawyers representing the three imprisoned in Chios.
Greek authorities, he said, “are essentially baptizing the smuggled as the smuggler.”
Mohammad’s journey is also a stark indication of the chaos asylum-seekers may experience as they migrate between two countries long divided by deep-seated mistrust.
Fearing for their lives after the smuggler fled, the nearly three dozen panicked passengers abandoned their quest to reach Greece. Mohammad says he called the Turkish coast guard repeatedly, begging for a rescue. But when it arrived, the Turkish patrol boat circled the migrants’ vessel sharply, sending water into the dinghy and gradually pushing it toward Greece. In the chaos, two women fell overboard and drowned.
The Greek coast guard rescued the survivors, and Mohammad helped other passengers onto the rescue boat. He admitted to having driven the boat after the smuggler left. It didn’t cross his mind that would lead to him being prosecuted as a smuggler.
Aid workers and volunteers have also found themselves in the crosshairs of Greek authorities. In one widely publicized case, Syrian human rights worker Sarah Mardini, a refugee herself, and volunteer Sean Binder were arrested and detained for months in 2018 on suspicion of espionage, money laundering and a litany of other offenses. They deny all charges, and say they were doing nothing more than helping rescue people.
It’s not just Greece. According to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Germany, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Spain and Greece have initiated 58 investigations and legal proceedings since 2016 against private entities involved in search and rescue.
[full story AssociatedPress]