Years ago a Greek refugee camp burned. Those blamed say they are innocent

Four Afghan asylum seekers, who were residents of the sprawling Moria camp, deny their convictions. Their fate could be sealed this week.

A migrant carries her belongings following a fire at the Moria camp for refugees and migrants on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 9, 2020. REUTERS/Elias Marcou/File photo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY SEARCH "GLOBAL POY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2020 PACKAGES.
A woman carries her belongings following a fire at the Moria camp for refugees on the island of Lesbos, Greece [File: Elias Marcou/Reuters]

Athens, Greece – Four Afghan asylum seekers convicted of starting a fire that burned a sprawling Greek refugee camp to the ground are expecting a court decision on their appeal trial.

All residents of Moria at the time, the defendants are now aged 18, 20, 20 and 23. They were officially blamed in June 2021 for the fire that ravaged the camp on the island of Lesbos in a trial their lawyers say was replete with procedural errors. They have been held in two different prisons on the Greek mainland since 2020.

The decision is expected this week at an appeals court on Lesbos.

Two other Afghans who were also accused of starting the fire were registered as minors at the time and were, as a result, tried separately. The younger pair lost their appeal last year.

In June 2021, the four were convicted of “arson with danger to human life” by the Mixed Jury Court of Chios and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.

The evidence presented was flimsy, according to their lawyers – only one written witness testimony to the police.

The witness, another camp resident, confirmed the defendants’ identities through “five specific photographs” of them, said the lawyers.

“None of the other prosecution witnesses, be it police officers or firefighters, were able to identify the defendants, although they were eyewitnesses to the fire,” said a statement by the Legal Center Lesvos, which represents those awaiting the appeal decision this week, at the time of their first trial in 2021.

Lesbos was one of the main points of entry for asylum seekers to Europe during the “refugee crisis” years of 2015-16 and many people upon arrival were brought to the Moria camp for processing.

When the infamous site burned down in September 2020, it made headlines across the globe, having already been described as “hell on earth” by aid groups.

It was known for its squalid and overcrowded conditions. At its peak, the camp hosted nearly 20,000 people in a space originally designed for approximately 3,000. Residents sheltered in tents and shacks in overflow areas around the main camp.

The fire, first detected in the late hours of September 8 four years ago, spread rapidly throughout the olive groves on the hill on which the camp was built.

Thanasis Voulgarakis, a human rights activist on Lesbos rushed to the camp the night it burned down.

“Everything was on fire, it was literally fire everywhere,” he said. “The whole night was like this and people were trying to help other people to leave, the containers and the plastic from the tents was burning all night and there was just a panic but at least nobody was hurt, it was a miracle.”

The fire was still smouldering the following morning. Black smoke emanated from the camp, which had turned into a heap of twisted metal and plastic. The flames left behind charred living containers and tents, and many of the pathways were still littered with people’s belongings which they had had to abandon to escape the inferno. The days that followed the blaze resulted in chaotic scenes as thousands were left homeless on the streets of Lesbos while authorities prepared a new “temporary” camp on a site nearby which is still in use.

Activists and rights groups decried European migration policies for such a large containment of people.

Notis Mitarachi, the Greek migration minister at the time, said that “the arsonists of Moria have been detained [and] the safety of everyone is guaranteed”, although no trial had yet taken place.

Lawyers representing the four have said the last trial “disregarded the basic procedural and substantive safeguards”.

They noted that the singular witness did not appear in court and therefore could not be cross-examined. Their testimony alleges that the defendants set fire to a specific area of Moria camp on a specific day. Their lawyers say, however, that according to the local fire service, this part of the camp did not burn on that specific day. The lawyers have alleged a litany of other issues in the 2021 trial, including “erroneous or incomplete interpretations”.

Forensic Architecture and Forensis, research agencies that the accuseds’ lawyers commissioned to investigate the case, released analysis in 2023 into the Moria fire after examining hundreds of videos, images, testimonies and official reports to reconstruct the events of the night.

They pointed out that there had been many fires over the years, particularly in September, when “the ground is driest in this Mediterranean region”.

“Dry conditions, combined with the precarity and density resulting from policies imposed by Greek and EU authorities, led to a steep increase in large fires every year around this time,” they said. “Our analysis reveals significant inconsistencies in the testimony of the key witness and casts further doubt on the evidence upon which the judgment of the young asylum seekers was based.”

Vicky Aggelidou, one of the lawyers from Legal Center Lesvos, said that in the 2021 trial, journalists and legal observers were barred from entering the court under the pretext of COVID-19 restrictions.

“If journalists and the public had not been prohibited from entering the courtroom during the first trial they would have witnessed the ridiculous show trial that led to the conviction for four of the Moria 6, without any credible evidence,” she told Al Jazeera. “We have been waiting for almost three and a half years to have a proper and fair trial in which defence arguments and evidence are actually considered by the court, during which time the four remained in prison. While courts might prefer to sweep this case under the ashes of Moria, we will not stop fighting for the freedom of the Moria 6.”

“It is Greek and European migration policies that should be put on trial, not these six young Afghans.”

Source: Al Jazeera