Suspected Smugglers Face Hearing in Deadly Migrant Shipwreck off Greece

Nine Egyptians have made their first court appearance in Greece to face smuggling charges in connection with one of the worst shipwrecks off the Greek coast in recent years.

The incident has sparked fierce debate and criticism against the Greek Coast Guard and whether it could have prevented the vessel, which was full of migrants, from sinking.

Amid tight security and a police escort, the nine suspects were whisked to a courthouse to face smuggling and murder charges in a closed-door hearing in the Greek city of Kalamata.

Shortly after they arrived, a special prosecutor gave the suspects a 24-hour extension to answer fresh allegations that they also beat and abused hundreds of asylum seekers packed on the ill-fated ship before it capsized last Monday in high seas.

Seventy-eight people were killed with up to hundreds more feared missing 

All of the suspects, Egyptian nationals between the ages of 20 and 40, have denied the smuggling charges. The suspects said they did not organize the illegal transfer of the migrants, who had left Libya intending to go to Italy.  

Late Sunday, Pakistan arrested 13 people believed to have orchestrated the illegal trafficking of the migrants. 

By some accounts, as many as 750 asylum seekers were on board the ill-fated boat, among them some 200 women and children who had been locked up in the hold of the vessel. 

For nearly a week since the sinking, Coast Guard vessels have scoured the site of the incident. But hopes of finding survivors, beyond the 104 picked up in the early hours after the sinking, are extremely slim.

The United Nations has called for an independent investigation into what it has called one of the worst maritime tragedies involving migrants. 

The looming question is whether the incident could have been avoided and if not, whether more migrants could have been saved.

Evangelos Apostolakis, a former Greek defense minister and former head of the Greek Navy, explains.

He says, “There are international guidelines and protocols allowing for countries to act in international waters. They concern drug trafficking, ships containing dangerous and toxic cargo and products of crimes.”

Even if lives are at risk, Apostolakis says, protocols call for assistance, and there is no doubt that some sort of intervention should have taken place. 

Apostolakis said that while the Coast Guard was responsible for the search and rescue operation, the Navy could have been called in to assist because of what he called its “legitimacy and flexibility” to act in international waters. 

With a repeat round of voting due to elect a new government this coming Sunday, the tragedy has suddenly surged to the top of the political debate. 

Main opposition leader Alexis Tsipras has openly accused the Coast Guard of failing to do enough in the deadly shipwreck. 

Incumbent conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has maintained that the focus of any investigation and international crackdown should be human smugglers profiting off the migrants’ misery. 

“Greece’s Coast Guard should not be scapegoated,” he said.

The Coast Guard has also lashed out at critics who said it approached the vessel in distress on at least three occasions, but that all attempts to help haul it to safety were rejected.

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