A defendent arrives at the courthouse of Mytilene, Lesbos on Monday, January 9.. Photo: InfoMigrants
A defendent arrives at the courthouse of Mytilene, Lesbos on Monday, January 9.. Photo: InfoMigrants

The trial of Mohammad Hanad, a Somali migrant sentenced to 142 years in prison in 2021 for "facilitating illegal entry" into Greece, took place on Monday on the island of Lesbos. The following day 24 volunteers and aid workers, also accused of people smuggling, appeared before the same court. Charlotte Oberti reports for InfoMigrants.

The interpreters had to translate the verdict from Greek to English, and then from English to Somali before Mohammad Hanad could understand it at the end of a trial in the courthouse of Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos on January 9. The announcement of the verdict created an enthusiastic murmur that spread through the courtroom and made the young man suddenly sit up straight in his chair. 

In a span of several hours, the 30-year-old Somali migrant went from expecting life behind bars to an imminent release from prison. During a trial to appeal his sentence, the court judged the defendant as guilty of "facilitating illegal entries" into Greek territory by steering a sinking boat of migrants in the Aegean Sea on which he was a passenger himself. In the end, the circumstances presented by his lawyers led him to receive a drastically smaller penalty.

A Greek court sentenced Mohammad Hanad to 142 years in prison in 2021 after being convicted following a deadly crossing in a dinghy from Turkey to the nearby Greek island of Lesbos the previous year. The draconian sentence came from Greek law which took into account the number of passengers aboard the dinghy and multiplied it by the number of years of imprisonment. In practice, the maximum prison term in Greece is twenty years. 

Hanad, a father of four who came to Europe in the hope of finding work and subsequently bringing over his wife and children, would be able "to leave prison soon", according to his lawyers, who brought forward several elements in favor of their client, such as good behavior and the fact that he already spent two years in prison.

Once the judges made their announcement, the police led Mohammad Hanad away. He walked out of court without a word but with his fist raised in victory.

'Everyone knows he is innocent'

The paradoxical verdict elicited a mixture of relief and bitterness among Hanad's lawyers. "We are very happy (with this verdict), but he was still found guilty when everyone knows he is innocent," said Dimitris Choulis. "Mohammad shouldn't have spent a single day in prison. Now he has a criminal record that says he is guilty of people smuggling. Authorities will see him through this aspect wherever he goes and it could stop him from obtaining refugee status."

Alexandros Georgoulis, the other lawyer, said the symbolic case "gave hope to future cases of this kind". The leading lawyer and specialist in the criminalization of migrants said he defended over 50 people in similar situations. Greece, as a gateway to the European Union, intends to dissuade potential candidates for exile through expeditious trials. "Simply touching the helm of a migrant boat can lead the Greek justice to put someone on trial for people smuggling", explained Georgoulis. "Everyone is found guilty."

Mohammad Hanad, wearing clothes too big for him, claimed his innocence on Monday. "I do not have the money to have a boat nor the knowledge to be a people smuggler," he said in front of the court. Hanad said he steered the boat carrying over 36 people after the man who organized their departure from the Turkish coast abandoned the ship by getting on a second boat that came to pick him up at sea to bring him back to Turkey. “Without any knowledge of navigation,” Mohammad Hanad said he “tried to steer” the boat for 20 minutes in bad weather conditions. Then the engine failed and water rushed into the dinghy.

The terrified passengers called the Turkish Coast Guard for help and the latter took hours to intervene. Once in the area, they performed circular maneuvers around the frail boat, causing waves and throwing the migrants off balance. In the end, the Greek coast guard saved Mohamm Hanad and the others, but in a moment of rushing and panic, two women fell into the water. Their lifeless bodies were found several hours later. "All I tried to do was to save people who were on the boat like me," said Hanad. "If I had to do it again, I would."

Read more: Greek coast guard detains suspected migrant smugglers after wild chase

'It's chaos, total chaos'

Seen as a symbol of the criminalization of migrants in Greece, the trial was also proof of expeditious justice. In a courtroom that anyone could enter through a door with a broken handle and where the police constantly said “shh!” no one seemed to understand the rules on Monday. The cases had numbers in order to establish an order of procedure, but cases often came in an unexpected order. Mohammad Hanad, number three, unpredictably went before the court after cases seven and eight.

Worse still, the interpreters, essential for translating the appeal of a Somali who spoke neither Greek nor English, were chosen at the last minute and paralyzed the entire trial. Later, a verbal altercation broke out between Mohammad Hanad's lawyers, indignant with the work of the interpreter chosen upon short notice, and the judges, mistrustful of the interpreters provided by the defense, who they ended up accepting.

"It is chaos, total chaos," said a member of the NGO Aegean Migrant Solidarity (AMS), preferring to remain anonymous. The woman said she regularly attended the trials of migrants taking place in Mytilene but admitted she did not undertand their logic.

Greek courts sentence numerous migrants in similar circumstances. A little over 2,000 migrants are currently serving prison sentences in the country, explained Stelios Kouloglou, MEP and member of the far-left Syriza party that supports Mohammad Hanad. "Migrants make up the second largest prison population in Greece," he said before providing several statistics. The average length of these sentences are forty-five years, while the average duration of a trial is twenty-eight minutes. "There are lives that are destroyed, just like that."

Read more: Turkey says it rescued 81 migrants, accuses Greece of sea pushbacks


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