He Saved 31 People at Sea. Then Got a 142-Year Prison Sentence.

·7 min read
Hundreds of migrants gather by Turkey's Pazarkule border crossing with Greece, near Edirne, northwestern Turkey, on March 5, 2020. (The New York Times)
Hundreds of migrants gather by Turkey's Pazarkule border crossing with Greece, near Edirne, northwestern Turkey, on March 5, 2020. (The New York Times)

ATHENS, Greece — When Hanad Abdi Mohammad grabbed the wheel of a foundering smuggling boat off the Aegean island of Lesbos in December, he said he was scared but determined to save himself and the other 33 people on board.

Six months later, Mohammad, 28, from Somalia, is in a prison on the Greek island of Chios after receiving a 142-year sentence for human smuggling.

“I still have nightmares about that night,” Mohammad said in comments relayed by his lawyers from prison, describing the fateful crossing from Turkey, in which two passengers died. But he said he had no regrets. “If I hadn’t done it, we’d all be dead.”

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A copy of the ruling from the Lesbos criminal court, dated May 13 and seen by The New York Times, said Mohammad had been sentenced to a total of 142 years and 10 days in prison for illegally smuggling migrants into Greece. But it added that he would serve a total of 20 years, the maximum allowed under Greece’s criminal code.

Mohammad is one of several asylum-seekers in recent months to have received long prison terms for trafficking or facilitating illegal entry despite arguing that they were just seeking safety, according to human rights groups. The groups have identified dozens of such cases over the past few years, although it is difficult to arrive at an exact number.

According to legal experts and rights groups, the practice of putting migrants on trial for smuggling began around the time of the migration crisis of 2015-16, when more than 1 million refugees streamed through Greece, overwhelming its resources. The practice has intensified as Greece hardened its migration policy in recent years and the European Union doubled down on deterrence, they say.

Greece, for its part, defends itself, saying that its courts are fair and that it has an obligation to guard its borders.

“In Greece as in the U.S.A. and the whole Western world, justice is strong and independent, judging on the basis of facts presented during hearings,” the migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, said in a written statement when asked for comment on the convictions. “Greece will continue to guard its land and sea borders, which are also Europe’s borders, as its duty, respectful of international and European law.”

In the same Chios prison as Mohammad are two Afghan men, ages 24 and 26, both of whom received 50-year sentences for facilitating illegal entry into Greece on sea voyages last fall, according to Lorraine Leete of the Legal Centre Lesvos, which represented them. One had traveled with his pregnant wife and child.

And a 28-year-old Syrian man is in prison in Athens after receiving a 52-year term in April after crossing from Turkey with his wife and three children, according to his lawyers, Vicky Angelidou and Vassilis Psomos.

The lawyers, who declined to name those convicted on privacy grounds, said there was no evidence that they were driving the boats and that there was only one witness, a Greek Coast Guard official.

Mohammad’s sentence was heavier because two women drowned in that crossing. But eight migrants who had been on the boat said that the Turkish smuggler transporting them had abandoned the vessel and that Mohammad tried to save it after a Turkish Coast Guard vessel forced it into Greek waters, according to his lawyers. Only two of the migrants were allowed to testify in court because of coronavirus restrictions.

“The criminalization of migrants as a means of deterrence has been a strategy for a long time,” said François Crépeau, an expert on international law and a former top United Nations official on the rights of migrants. “The latest step is what we’ve seen in Greece recently, which is obscene numbers of years in prison for people who are basically trying to save their lives and protect their families.”

Over the past two years, smugglers have been increasingly limiting the time they spend on boats, abandoning migrants when they approach Greek waters, or training them to take the wheel, according to Dimitris Choulis and Alexandros Georgoulis, the lawyers defending Mohammad and others in similar predicaments.

When boats arrive on Greek shores, one migrant is typically singled out by officials, Choulis said. But the decision is often made without real evidence, he added, noting that one Afghan man is facing smuggling charges simply for having the GPS open on his cellphone during a crossing.

Casting a refugee as a smuggler is “treating a small-time drug offender like Escobar,” said Clio Papapadoleon, a prominent human rights lawyer, referring to the Colombian drug lord. She said there were no real efforts made to trace the actual traffickers.

“In none of these cases has there been an investigation by the police and judicial authorities to trace the smugglers,” she said. “Those arrested are never asked, 'Who gave you the boat? Who abandoned you at sea?'”

Papapadoleon, however, acknowledged that migrants may sometimes agree to take the wheel in return for a small payment, or free passage, as smugglers take advantage of their desperate financial situations.

“Outrageous and far-fetched prison sentences are a method of intimidation,” said Ioannis Ioannidis, chairman of the Hellenic League for Human Rights and a former government official, likening it to the illegal practice of pushing migrants back out to sea. “They’re saying, ‘You will face thousands of difficulties and risks to get here and if you do get here your life will be hell,’” Ioannidis said.

He added that there was heavy pressure applied on security services by the government to find smugglers. “So the services might be overzealous in their approach, thinking they will prosecute someone, but ultimately justice will decide,” he said.

It is unclear how many of the hundreds of migrants serving time in Greek prisons for human smuggling or facilitating illegal entry may have been unfairly sentenced.

But according to a report published in November by Border Monitoring, a German charity, at least 48 cases had been identified just on Chios and Lesbos, where “the defendants did not profit in any way from the smuggling business.” According to Valeria Hänsel, one of the authors of the report, that number was likely to be just the tip of the iceberg, since most arrests take place on boats, making it hard to monitor them.

The Greek police said in a statement that every suspected case was fairly investigated under the supervision of a prosecutor and that all offenses were prosecuted in accordance with Greek law.

Alexandros Konstantinou, of the Greek Council for Refugees, said convicting refugees as smugglers was part of a broader strategy to deter more arrivals.

Other measures included the criminalization of illegal entry in 2020, applied to migrants at the Greek-Turkish land border, which led to dozens receiving prison terms instead of going to reception centers for identification, and a recent decision by Greece to designate Turkey as a safe country for asylum-seekers. That move was aimed at pressuring Turkey to take back migrants currently in Greece and make it harder for migrants to apply for asylum there.

A root of the problem is Greece’s strained relationship with Turkey, which early last year stopped enforcing an agreement struck with Brussels in 2016 to halt the flow of migrants and take back those who manage to cross into Greece illegally who do not qualify for EU protection, some observers say.

“It’s very difficult for Greece but also for the EU to cooperate with Turkey to crack down on trafficking,” said Camino Mortera-Martinez, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform in Brussels. “It’s easier for the Greek authorities to say, ‘You were there, you were steering the boat and so you are charged with this crime.’”

According to Gerald Knaus, architect of the 2016 EU-Turkey deal, the trend comes in the context of an “incredible hardening” of migration policy globally, including the “normalization” of violence at borders, notably in Hungary and Croatia, and regular pushbacks.

In Greece’s case, he said, the authorities were likely to keep resorting to such measures until Turkey agreed to take back migrants who do not need protection in the EU. “Unless the EU puts a new deal on the table for Turkey,” he said, “I fear we’re going to see continued lawlessness.”

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