Greek court drops charges over deadly shipwreck, nine men to walk free

By Renee Maltezou

KALAMATA, Greece (Reuters) -A Greek court on Tuesday threw out charges against nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants off Greece last year, ruling it had no jurisdiction over the case because the disaster was in international waters.

The overcrowded Adriana fishing trawler from Libya was carrying up to 700 Pakistani, Syrian and Egyptian migrants bound for Italy before it capsized off southwestern Greece on June 14. Only 104 survivors were rescued and 82 bodies found.

It was one of the deadliest boat accidents ever in the Mediterranean Sea and raised questions about the methods used by EU countries to stem the flow of migrants heading to their shores, often in small, rickety boats.

The nine defendants, who were on board and charged with migrant smuggling, causing a shipwreck and participating in a criminal organisation, spent 11 months in detention before the case was dismissed within hours of the trial opening.

They had denied wrongdoing. Their lawyers said they were migrants seeking a better life in Italy and had been used by Greek authorities as scapegoats.

Survivors say a disastrous attempt by the Greek coastguard to tow the boat caused it to capsize in some of the deepest waters in the Mediterranean. They said the coastguard had monitored the boat for hours before launching a rescue operation.

Human rights groups and the defendants' lawyers have questioned the integrity of the Greek investigation and say not enough has been done to probe the coastguard's role.

The cause of the shipwreck remains a source of dispute. Greece's coastguard has denied any role in the sinking and said those on the vessel had refused assistance. It declined to comment on Tuesday.


The courtroom in the city of Kalamata erupted in applause after the judge announced the decision on Tuesday. The men, aged from 21 to 41, hugged relatives or knelt and kissed the floor.

"This is a great victory for human rights in Greece," Spyros Pantazis, one of the defendants' lawyers, told Reuters.

"Nine innocent men are walking free. Finally, after a huge struggle and pain, justice has been served."

Family members were ecstatic.

"I am very happy ... I just want to grab him and take him with me," said the aunt of one of the defendants, who had travelled from Italy to attend the trial.

It was not immediately clear if another international court would look into what happened. Legal experts said there is no clear jurisdiction if an unflagged or undocumented vessel capsizes in international waters.

The Greek coastguard's role in the incident is being investigated by a naval court, but the timing of any report or trial is not yet known.

In September, 40 survivors filed a lawsuit against Greek authorities for failing to act sooner to save those on board.

Defence lawyers said the nine men were charged on insufficient evidence following a rushed investigation.

The defendants are expected to be released in the coming days and to be sent to a camp near Athens while their asylum applications are processed. It could be weeks before they are fully free, one of their lawyers said.

The case has been followed closely in Greece, which in the past decade has been a magnet for hundreds of thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East seeking asylum.

(Reporting by Renee MaltezouEditing by Karolina Tagaris, Edward McAllister, Ros Russell, Christina Fincher and Gareth Jones)