Trial over deadly Med shipwreck opens in Greece amid protests

By Renee Maltezou

KALAMATA, Greece (Reuters) - The trial of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants off Greece last year began amid protests on Tuesday in the city of Kalamata.

Up to 700 migrants from Pakistan, Syria and Egypt boarded a fishing trawler in Libya that was bound for Italy before sinking off the coast of Pylos, in southwestern Greece, on June 14. Some 104 survivors were rescued and only 82 bodies were recovered in one of the deadliest boat accidents in the Mediterranean.

The Egyptian men, aged between 21 and 41, were arrested hours after the boat sank and have remained in police custody on charges of migrant smuggling, causing a shipwreck and participating in a criminal organisation. They deny wrongdoing.

But international rights groups, defence lawyers and witnesses dispute that the men were to blame. Many claim that the coastguard was at fault, which it denies.

"What is ... unbearable is to convict a person for acts that he never committed and to paint his hands with blood through your own acts," defence lawyer Efi Doussi told journalists last week.

Early on Tuesday, the men, some of them wearing shirts, were brought into a packed courtroom as relatives, witnesses and supporters watched from a distance.

Outside the court, protesters in support of the defendants briefly scuffled with police who had cordoned off the area.

"This crime will not be forgotten," protesters chanted. "We will become the voices of the dead."

Survivors told Reuters last year that a disastrous attempt by the coastguard to tow the boat caused it to capsize in some of the deepest waters in the Mediterranean.

Defence lawyers said the men were charged after a rushed investigation and on insufficient evidence. They accuse the coastguard of monitoring the vessel for hours before launching a rescue operation and that the coastguard tried to pull the boat into Italian waters. The coastguard has denied the accusations and has said that the those aboard the boat refused help.

(Editing by Karolina Tagaris, Edward McAllister and Alex Richardson)