Greek judge dismisses case against Egyptians accused in shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants

A Greek judge has dismissed charges against nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants last year and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations

KALAMATA, Greece (AP) — A Greek judge dismissed a case Tuesday against nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants last year and sent shockwaves through the European Union's border protection and asylum operations, after a prosecutor argued that Greece lacked jurisdiction.

The decision by Presiding Judge Eftichia Kontaratou came shortly after the trial opened and was greeted with cheers and applause from supporters of the defendants. The nine could be released as early as Wednesday. It was not immediately clear whether they would be housed in a migrant camp or released entirely.

More than 500 people are believed to have gone down with the Adriana, which sank in one of the deepest parts of the Mediterranean while traveling from Libya to Italy. Only 104 people were rescued from the overcrowded fishing trawler — all men, the vast majority from Syria, Pakistan and Egypt — and 82 bodies were recovered.

Prosecutors accused the defendants of being part of the trawler's crew — something the defense denied — and therefore responsible for the mistreatment of passengers and the massively overcrowded conditions. The nine men faced up to life in prison had they been convicted of the criminal charges including people smuggling and causing a deadly shipwreck.

Public prosecutor Ekaterini Tsironi urged the case to be dismissed because the trawler sank outside Greek territorial waters, and asserted that “the jurisdiction of the Greek courts cannot be established.”

International human rights groups had argued the defendants' right to a fair trial was compromised because they faced judgment while a separate Naval Court investigation into the sinking and the Greek coast guard's actions is still under way.

The trawler was sailing in international waters but within Greece's search and rescue area of operations when it sank. A coast guard patrol boat and passing merchant ships were near the vessel for hours.

Several survivors have said the capsizing happened after the Greek coast guard attempted to tow the ship, an accusation Greek authorities deny. The circumstances of the sinking remain unclear.

The indictments against the nine were based on testimonies from nine survivors. Defense lawyers argued that testimony had been coerced, and that their clients had been paying passengers who were scapegoated by authorities eager to put the blame for the sinking on overcrowded conditions.

Dimitris Choulis, a lawyer in the defense team, said attention should turn to how the Adriana sank.

“The court today had to be very brave to issue this decision, and to say that these people are not the smugglers,” Choulis said.

The lawyer blamed the tragedy on the Greek coast guard and Europe's migration policies, and said it was essential to “make sure that nothing like that would happen again.”

His comments were echoed by Judith Sunderland, an associate director at Human Rights Watch.

“Now that the survivors’ ordeal is over, we need to see the Naval Court conclude its investigation to determine the responsibilities of the Greek Coast Guard for the tremendous loss of life in the Pylos shipwreck,” she said. Pylos is the Greek town that was closest to where the trawler sank.

Questioned through an interpreter at trial, the accused said their intention had been to travel to Italy, not Greece, and several declared their innocence.

Dalia Abdel-Magid, the aunt of defendant Mohammed Emad Abdel-Magid, said that“I’m so happy that I just want to hug him and take him with me."

“Justice prevailed. These people stayed in jail for a year even though they were innocent, and this must not happen again," said Stelios Kouloglou, a Greek member of the European Parliament.

The sinking renewed pressure on European governments to protect the lives of migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach the continent. The European border protection agency Frontex says illegal border detections at EU frontiers increased for three consecutive years through 2023, reaching the highest level since the 2015-2016 migration crisis, driven largely by arrivals by sea.

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One of nine Egyptians, who was on trial for migrant smuggling, waves to the media persons as he leaves the court in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. A Greek judge dismissed charges against nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants last year and sent shockwaves through the European Union's border protection and asylum operations, after a prosecutor told the court Greece lacked jurisdiction. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

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One of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck last year that killed hundreds of migrants waves as he is led by police to a courthouse in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

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Police guard outside a court house in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Nine Egyptian men go on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

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A protester bleeds after clashes with police outside a court house in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Nine Egyptian men go on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

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Police clash with protesters outside a court house in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Nine Egyptian men go on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

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One of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants waves as he is led by police to a courthouse in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

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Two of nine Egyptians, who were on trial for migrant smuggling, wave to the media persons as they leave the court in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. A Greek judge dismissed charges against nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants last year and sent shockwaves through the European Union's border protection and asylum operations, after a prosecutor told the court Greece lacked jurisdiction. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

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Police clash with protesters outside a court house in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Nine Egyptian men go on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

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Two of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck last year that killed hundreds of migrants arrive at a courthouse for the start of their trial in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

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Two of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck last year that killed hundreds of migrants arrive at a courthouse for the start of their trial in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

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Two of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck last year that killed hundreds of migrants arrive at a courthouse for the start of their trial in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

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Two of nine Egyptians, who were on trial for migrant smuggling, wave to the media persons as they leave from the court in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. A Greek judge dismissed charges against nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants last year and sent shockwaves through the European Union's border protection and asylum operations, after a prosecutor told the court Greece lacked jurisdiction. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

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One of nine Egyptians, who was on trial for migrant smuggling, waves to the media persons as he leaves the court in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. A Greek judge dismissed charges against nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants last year and sent shockwaves through the European Union's border protection and asylum operations, after a prosecutor told the court Greece lacked jurisdiction. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

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Four of nine Egyptians, who were on trial for migrant smuggling, react as they leave from the court in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. A Greek judge dismissed charges against nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants last year and sent shockwaves through the European Union's border protection and asylum operations, after a prosecutor told the court Greece lacked jurisdiction. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

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One of nine Egyptians, who was on trial for migrant smuggling, waves to the media persons as he leaves the court in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. A Greek judge dismissed charges against nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants last year and sent shockwaves through the European Union's border protection and asylum operations, after a prosecutor told the court Greece lacked jurisdiction. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

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Dalia Elghaty, the aunt of a 27 year-old Egyptian, who he is accused of causing a shipwreck, holds photos of him outside a court house in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Nine Egyptian men have gone on trial in southern Greece, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union's border protection and asylum operations. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

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Police clash with protesters outside a court house in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Nine Egyptian men go on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

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Police clash with protesters outside a court house in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Nine Egyptian men go on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

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Protesters react after a court's decision as the banner reads "Justice shouldn't sink. Open borders for refugees" in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. A Greek judge dismissed charges against nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants last year and sent shockwaves through the European Union's border protection and asylum operations, after a prosecutor told the court Greece lacked jurisdiction. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

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