New lawsuit filed against Greece on behalf of refugee shipwreck survivors

Forty survivors are part of the suit alleging Greek authorities failed to protect the lives of those on the fishing boat that capsized in June, killing hundreds.

boat Greece
Syrian survivor Mohammad, 18, cries as he reunites with his brother Fadi at the port of Kalamata, Greece [File: Stelios Misinas/Reuters]

Athens, Greece – Three months after one of the deadliest shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea in recent years, a lawsuit has been filed on behalf of 40 survivors, alleging a series of violations by Greek authorities.

The lawsuit – filed on Wednesday at the Naval Court of Piraeus, a port in the greater Athens area – demands an investigation into the shipwreck of June 14 when a fishing trawler carrying about 750 people sunk off the western coast of Greece near Pylos.

The suit accuses Greek authorities of failing to protect the lives of those on board the ship, which had set off on the dangerous migration route from Libya bound for Italy and was in the Greek search and rescue zone when it sunk.

Eighty-two bodies were recovered, 104 people were rescued and hundreds remain missing, presumed drowned.

Allegations of towing attempt

Allegations quickly emerged from survivors that the boat was subjected to a towing attempt in its final moments by the Greek coastguard before it capsized and sank.

The coastguard, heavily criticised in the aftermath of the disaster, admitted to temporarily attaching a rope to the boat but has strenuously denied all wrongdoing, including towing allegations.

The sinking captured global attention as it emerged that Greek authorities were aware of the boat for hours before it sunk and had reportedly ignored three offers of assistance from Frontex, the EU coastguard and border agency.

Multiple media investigations have since shed light on serious issues such as survivor testimonies that were tampered with and other closer coastguard vessels that could have been mobilised and sent to the scene for assistance.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are among the rights organisations that have called for a “a full and credible investigation” that “should involve taking the testimonies of all survivors under conditions that guarantee their trust and safety”.

In the aftermath of the sinking, a Greek Supreme Court prosecutor ordered an investigation into the wreck but stated it should be carried out with complete secrecy. Lawyers said as far as they were aware, none of the survivors had yet to be called to testify.

A group of nine Egyptians who survived the wreck have been accused of smuggling, manslaughter and forming a criminal organisation, charges that could result in life sentences. They all deny the allegations.

Case filed against ‘all responsible state actors’

The case filed this week was brought by a collective of lawyers working on behalf of survivors, including the Network for Refugee and Migrant Rights, the Hellenic League for Human Rights, the Greek Council for Refugees, the Initiative of Lawyers and Jurists for the Pylos Shipwreck and Refugee Support Aegean (RSA).

A survivor of the shipwreck is transferred by rescue personnel in Kalamata [File: Eurokinissi via Reuters]

Eleni Spathana, a lawyer from the RSA, told Al Jazeera they had filed a criminal complaint “against all responsible state actors of all competent Greek authorities who by their liable acts and omissions led to the tragic shipwreck of June 14, 2023, near Pylos and the loss of hundreds of people”.

“As lawyers at RSA, we represent the victims who survived this tragedy, whose life has also been jeopardised and who experienced the traumatic loss of relatives and friends, seeking justice for all the victims of this tragic shipwreck,” she said.

“We demand an immediate, thorough and reliable penal investigation and prosecution in order to bring to justice all those responsible state actors who by their acts and omissions violated the rules of international Law of the Sea and their set obligations on search and rescue and consequently caused this tragedy,” Spathana added.

“It is of crucial importance for our society and democracy that justice should be served,” she said.

Maria Papamina, legal unit coordinator for the Greek Council for Refugees, told Al Jazeera that the case was on behalf of survivors “who look for justice to be served and for accountability to be held for the actions and omissions that led to the loss of so many lives, which need to be thoroughly investigated”.

‘What happened was a brutal massacre’

Of the 104 survivors of the wreck, some have since left Greece, and at least one man requested repatriation to Pakistan.

Others have had their asylum claims in Greece accepted, but some still await a final decision and remain in the Malakasa refugee camp about an hour outside Athens, where they were brought in the days after the wreck.

Migrants rest in a shelter in Kalamata
Refugees rest in a shelter in Kalamata after their boat capsized, killing hundreds [File: Stelios Misinas/Reuters]

Hundreds of those on the fishing boat were reportedly Pakistani, and many of their families are still waiting for answers about lost loved ones come from some of Pakistan’s rural and impoverished villages.

Ahmad Farooq from near Gujranwala said his son, presumed lost in the wreck, boarded the boat in the hope of getting a job in Europe to support the family.

Hassan Al-Jalam, a survivor from Syria represented in the lawsuit, told Al Jazeera it was essential that answers were found for the living and for the dead.

“What happened was a brutal massacre that started with a ruse to avoid rescue and ended with everyone drowning,” he said.

“We demand international condemnation and accountability for the perpetrators of the Greek coastguard and all those who failed to perform a rescue. We want justice for all the victims of the boat.”

Greek authorities told Al Jazeera that the coastguard’s “actions are in line with the country’s international obligations, in particular with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea and the International Convention on Search and Rescue in Sea”.

They also said they operate “around the clock with efficiency, high sense of responsibility, professionalism” and “absolute respect for human life and human rights”.

Source: Al Jazeera