Egyptian man who survived shipwreck denies causing Greece boat disaster

By Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS (Reuters) -Ahmed Alkwrab thought his ordeal was over last June when he survived one of the deadliest shipwrecks ever recorded in the Mediterranean Sea and finally set foot on European soil.

Hours after a fishing trawler carrying hundreds of migrants capsized, however, the Egyptian housepainter found himself being interrogated by Greek authorities who then charged him and eight others with smuggling and causing the disaster.

If convicted, he would have faced life imprisonment.

"When they sat me in a room by myself and shut me in, the fear began. What's wrong? What's happened? Did I do anything?" he told Reuters.

"They're telling us that we are smugglers. Traffickers? No, no, no, no - that's not how it is at all."

Their arrests sparked outrage from international rights groups who said the migrants were being used as scapegoats for coastguard errors and that the case against them was flimsy.

Alkwrab and the other accused spent 11 months in pre-trial detention waiting for a chance to argue their innocence. When that opportunity came last month, the judge threw out the case within hours, allowing the men to walk free.

Alkwrab's often emotional account, shared exclusively with Reuters, is the first time any of the accused have spoken publicly about their ordeal.

He and the others were accused of being part of the ship's crew, handing out water and fixing things. He denies this.

"I didn't do it. Nor did I give anyone a mouthful of water, nor did I fix a boat or go down to the engine."

The overcrowded Adriana was carrying up to 750 Pakistani, Syrian and Egyptian migrants before it capsized off Greece on June 14, one of the worst disasters in a decade-long Mediterranean migrant crisis. It raised questions about the EU's treatment of migrants, many of whom risk death for a more prosperous life in Europe.

Only 104 survivors and 82 bodies were found.

The cause of the shipwreck is disputed. Survivors say the coastguard caused the boat to capsize during a failed attempt to tow it. The coastguard denies this, saying that the migrants' movements on board had caused it to sink.

NOT QUITE FREE

Alkwrab said poverty had forced him to leave Sadat city in Egypt.

The youngest of his three children was born with a lung condition that required expensive treatment that two jobs couldn't pay for.

He hoped to reunite with his brother in Italy and find work and borrowed 140,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,954) from friends to pay for the journey.

Alkwrab broke into sobs as he recounted his time in prison, missing his children growing up and his son Omar's first words. He did not interact with the prison guards. Fellow inmates told them there was no way they would ever be released.

Brief calls with his family kept him going. They told him to take care of himself and that God would not forget him.

"The thing that hurt me the most was Omar calling me 'Dad' when I was in prison," Alkwrab said.

"The happiest day in 11 months was when I came out innocent. One day in 11 months," he added.

Alkwrab is staying now in Athens awaiting word on his asylum request. He doesn't feel fully free yet.

"I really wish to become legal in this country," Alkwrab said. "To prove to everyone that we are here for a purpose, to do something to change our lives."

($1 = 47.4000 Egyptian pounds)

(Editing by Edward McAllister and Gareth Jones)