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 thirty-two people.
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 to mainland Greece people live in limbo, enduring inhumane conditions in overcrowded camps, facing the constant threat of deportation back to Turkey.
The island of Lesvos is the largest of these holding sites. Moria refugee camp on the island is the largest holding facility. Built to accommodate approximately 1,800 people, there are currently around 6,500 individuals 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. This protest was met by the authorities with violence. Humanitarian actors were evicted from the camp and police officers were filmed gathering rocks from the ground and throwing them at 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 residents, including teenagers and a pregnant woman. Thirty-five people were arrested during the raid; one beaten so badly that he was hospitalised for a week.
Following these arrests, Amnesty International published a report demanding Greek authorities launch an investigation in to police use of force, which they stated “may amount to torture”. The report indicates those arrested were subject to racist abuse and beatings in police custody. Many arrestees were brought to court barefoot having been denied time to dress properly before being dragged out of the camp; others were bleeding from injuries that had been left untreated for days in prison.
Last week, on the final day of their trial, three of the thirty-five people arrested were found innocent. The remaining thirty-two were given suspended sentences for an identical catalogue of criminal offences, ranging from rioting and damage to private property to disturbing the public peace. They plan to appeal this guilty verdict.
Legal Centre Lesbos, a group providing legal advice to those living 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 in 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. European governments are failing time and again to listen to the voices of the people making the difficult journey across Europe and the Middle East, in doing so putting more lives at risk.
Find out more about the trial on the Legal Centre Lesbos website.