Despite what one legal group has described as an “overwhelming lack of evidence”, the trial of the ‘Moria 35’ ended last week with the conviction of 32 people. This guilty verdict will be appealed by the 32, but after nine months, all 35 will no longer be detained.
Since the EU-Turkey deal of March 2016, refugees and migrants arriving to the Greek islands from Turkey can be held indefinitely. Instead of continuing their journey into mainland Greece, people live in limbo, enduring inhumane conditions in overcrowded camps, facing the threat of deportation back to Turkey.
The island of Lesvos is the largest of these holding sites. And Moria refugee camp on the island is the largest holding facility. Built to accommodate approximately 1,800 people, there are currently around 6,500 people living in this overcrowded camp.
In July of last year, hundreds of protesters gathered peacefully to demand the right to free movement to the mainland. But authorities met this protest with violence. Humanitarian actors were evicted from the camp and police officers were filmed gathering rocks from the ground and throwing them at the protesters during the ensuing clashes.
Later in the day, armed police violently raided the so-called ‘African section’ of the camp. They forcibly entered shelters and assaulted the residents, including a pregnant woman. 35 people were arrested in this raid. One of the arrestees was beaten so badly that he was hospitalised for a week.
Following these arrests, Amnesty International published a report demanding Greek authorities launch an investigation into police use of force, which they stated “may amount to torture”. The report also indicates those arrested were subject to racist abuse and beatings in police custody. Many arrestees were brought to court still barefoot, others bleeding from injuries that had been left untreated for days in prison.
Last week, on the final day of their trial, 3 of the 35 people arrested were found innocent. The remaining 32 were given suspended sentences for an identical catalogue of criminal offences, ranging from rioting and damage to private property, to disturbing the public peace. This guilty verdict will be appealed by the 32, but after nine months, all 35 are no longer detained.
Legal Centre Lesbos, a group providing legal advice to refugees on the island, responded to the ruling:
“This inherently unsafe verdict, reached despite an overwhelming lack of evidence, follows a week long trial which continuously violated fundamental principles of a fair trial under Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights and brings into serious question the impartiality of both the Judges and Prosecutor in the case…
“Police witnesses testified that all 32 defendants arrested inside Moria Camp were guilty simply because they were present in the African section of the camp after clashes between some migrants and riot police had ended. Confirmation by the court that guilt can be implied by race and location near to where alleged crimes took place sets an extremely dangerous precedent…
“It defies all logic, despite shocking video footage of police attacks against the defendants; and police witnesses unable to positively identify any of the 35 in court, that 32 were found guilty.”
We believe the dangerous precedent this ruling sets reflects an increasingly hostile legal atmosphere towards refugees calling for change. Only last week, far-right demonstrators attacked refugees peacefully protesting on Lesvos. 122 of the refugee and migrant protesters were consequently detained, while not one of their far-right attackers was arrested.
The right to free speech and peaceful protest must be protected. Refugees must be free to use their voices to challenge the failings of Europe’s response to this crisis.
Find out more about the trial on the Legal Centre Lesbos website.