Iranian refugee hopes to be acquitted in Greece smuggling appeal trial

Activists and legal experts say Homayoun Sabetara was unfairly imprisoned in 2022.

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Iranian refugee Homayoun Sabetara, who says he is not guilty of smuggling, pictured with his daughter Mahtab [Courtesy: Mahtab Sabetara]

Athens, Greece – It was April 2022 when Homayoun Sabetara finally told his daughters he was in a Greek jail cell.

Sabetara, an Iranian national, had been arrested in August 2021 in Thessaloniki after driving a vehicle across the Turkish-Greek border.

Sabetara says he was coerced into driving it into Greece and transporting the seven other people found inside. In September 2022, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison for smuggling in a trial that campaigners have said was unfair and Sabetara did not fully understand.

His daughter Mahtab Sabetara is now focussed on raising awareness for an appeal trial that starts on Monday in Thessaloniki and calling attention to the plight of other asylum seekers apparently in the same position.

“I found it quite shocking to go through this myself and figure out that this is the destiny of many people who are now in prison because of the same allegations,” Mahtab Sabetara told Al Jazeera over the phone from Germany, where she lives.

“I thought it would be, of course, a good thing to do for my father, so that we can raise awareness for his trial but at the same time to shed light on some other cases which are not very well known.”

Mahtab Sabetara said she hopes to push for a larger political change.

“It’s not just an isolated thing. It’s a systematic problem which affects many people and which is directly related to Europe’s migration policies,” she said.

“I always make this example: When the war in Ukraine started and people in Germany, for example, went to the Polish borders and took some people in their cars, those people were never called smugglers. The point was that these people were doing a moral thing.”

She added that in her view, “most of the people who are being called smugglers are actually people on the move themselves, and in many cases, the fact is that they didn’t have any other choice.”

Mahtab Sabetara said that since her father’s arrest, he has struggled to fully understand what is happening to him and why he is in jail.

“He fled Iran at a moment where he did not have any other alternatives. He never thought that this would be the outcome.”

The European Commission has made tackling smuggling one of its top priorities and in 2023 proposed legislation that it said would go after the people smugglers.

“We are stepping up the fight against migrant smuggling and protecting the people from falling into the hands of criminals,” European Union Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said in November. “We are going after the smugglers, not the smuggled.”

Rights campaigners, however, have long argued that innocent people invariably get caught up in this crackdown, pointing to cases across Europe in which refugees and migrants have faced significant jail time for being found at the wheel of a boat or a car after being forced into the position.

Dimitris Choulis from the Human Rights Legal Project, a legal aid organisation, will be one of the lawyers representing Homayoun Sabetara in court.

“The first hope is to have a fair trial, a trial where all the procedural laws will be respected, and secondly is for Homayoun to go out of prison and be reunited with his family,” he told Al Jazeera.

Choulis, who is based on the Greek island of Samos, one of the main sea arrival points for refugees and migrants in Greece, said he has seen several cases of asylum seekers being wrongly accused of smuggling.

“The exceptional thing in this case is that Homayoun’s two family members have found the tools and the strength to fight injustice,” he said.

“It’s very important to understand that all these people have names and have families – to understand that they are not just statistics.”

A 2023 report by Borderline Europe, an NGO, noted that people convicted of smuggling form the second largest group in Greek prisons, of whom about 90 percent are foreign nationals.

It said being the only person in a group who spoke English is sometimes the reason people found themselves charged.

Erik Marquardt, a member of the European Parliament for the Greens/European Free Alliance who commissioned the report, alleged in a statement sent to Al Jazeera that the Greek government is “knowingly misusing laws” designed to combat trafficking to “persecute and punish those who flee to its shores in search of protection”.

“This dangerous strategy of deterrence is not about punishing criminals, it’s about criminalising migration. The Greek government puts people in prisons whose only crime is to seek asylum in Europe and in doing so, it is attacking its own rule of law and endangering its democracy,” he said.

Greek ministers have consistently defended a “strict but fair” migration policy and spoken of the importance of tackling people smuggling and smuggling networks to protect Greece’s borders.

At the time of publishing, Greek authorities had not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

Mahtab Sabetara, meanwhile, continues to campaign for her father’s acquittal, recalling a man full of humour who she used to play chess with.

“He’s a very positive person,” she said. “Or he used to be a very positive person.”

Source: Al Jazeera