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Lesvos, Greece: Free the Moria 6!

Greece. Lesvos. Statement by the Leave No One Behind campaign and Legal Centre Lesvos on the Moria 6. On March 9, 2021, two of the accused of the Moria 6 were sentenced to five years in prison. The two were 17 at the time of the arrest, although they recently turned 18. 

Originally published by Leave No One Behind Telegram Channel and Legal Centre Lesvos.

Leave No One Behind: #FreeMoria6! [March 15, 2021]

In an arbitrary court case, two young men were sentenced last week to five years in prison by a Greek court. Together with four other men, they are accused of having set the fire that led to the destruction of the old Moria camp in September 2020. The decision is a scandal and the trial mocks the principles of a democratic state.

The case clearly shows how the justice system actively ignores international and European law in order to criminalise migrants. The trial was shaped by various judicial intimidation methods: Police presence was constantly high, the accused were denied the right to choose their legal representation as well as the possibility to cross-examine witnesses. All of this reveals the logic of a process which never meant to consider the accused as individuals with equal rights.

To treat migrant protest against inhumane living conditions as purely a criminal offence is to turn a blind eye to the realities of residents in all camps. The real culprits of the fire are the Greek and European politicians who make the existence of dehumanising camps possible in the first place.

Be it the Greek court or the German asylum processes: a system cannot claim to guarantee equal rights and treatment of all people while actively discriminating against, criminalising and threatening the lives and safety of migrants.

We demand: Freedom for #Moria6! Evacuate all camps!

Legal Centre Lesvos: Justice for the Moria 6

Image of Avlona prison. Credit: Protothema news

Today (March 9, 2021), following a six hour trial before the three member Juvenile Court of Mytilene, two of the Moria 6 defendants, A.A. and M.H. were found guilty of arson, related to the fires that destroyed Moria refugee camp in September 2020, and sentenced to five years in prison – which they will likely spend in Avlona prison for minors and young adults. 

The two were unaccompanied minors when they arrived in Greece, and were 17 at the time of the arrest, although they recently turned 18. Along with four other young men, who remain detained and await trial, they had been accused of arson with risk to human life and membership of a criminal group, but the two tried today were found not guilty of the latter criminal charge. 

At the start of today’s trial, the prosecutor requested an intermission of 10 minutes to deliberate whether or not he would permit lawyers from the Legal Centre to represent the defendants or whether they would be represented by state provided lawyers, despite the fact that is an undeniable right of defendants to be represented by the lawyer of their choosing. While Legal Centre lawyers were allowed to proceed with representation of A.A. and M.H., the implication that two young migrants do not have the agency to choose their own legal representation is indicative of the dehumanising treatment of migrants within the Greek justice system. 

The trial commenced with the testimony of 17 witnesses against the defendants. Most testified only to personal property and income they had lost as a result of the fire. Only two witnesses, both police officers – who had time and opportunity to compare testimony outside the courtroom – testified that they identified one of the two defendants based on video evidence that shows only two individuals with matching clothes from behind. The first testified that the defendant was “tiny and short”, however, when the defendant he had just ‘identified’ stood up at the request of one judge, the defendant was taller than the police officer by half a head. 

The only prosecution witness who identified or provided individualised evidence against the second defendant did not appear in court today.  Nevertheless, the prosecution was permitted to read out his written declaration during the trial, despite the defendant’s lawyers’ objection that this violated the defendant’s right to cross examine any witness against him, a fundamental right of criminal defendants confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights. The credibility of this witness has already been questioned publicly. The objection was overruled based on a claim by the prosecutor that the attempt to locate the witness was unsuccessful. Asylum seekers, however, are required to update their addresses with authorities, as are all foreign nationals living in Greece. If he could not be easily located, this fact itself should have discredited his former declaration.

The defence, on the other hand, were only permitted to call one witness per defendant, despite having more than ten people from the Hazara community (which all of the Moria 6 belong to) present at the court this morning and willing to testify in their defence. While, technically, the state is only obliged to allow one witness per defendant, it is clear that the law is used against migrants when convenient, and ignored when it is not. It appeared that the court was determined to finish the trial today in order to avoid the imminently approaching six month maximum time the defendants – who were arrested as minors – could lawfully remain incarcerated in pre-trial detention.

Furthermore, during the trial, which was closed to the public to protect the identity of the young men who had been arrested as minors, at least 5-7 police officers were present in the courtroom at all times – an exaggerated and unnecessary number of people required to secure the court, and in violation of the minors’ right to privacy. Meanwhile, ‘protecting’ the defendants through closed proceedings supposedly justified disproportionate police presence outside the court and the arbitrary issuance of fines, which obstructed attempts to monitor the trial, to be present outside the court in solidarity with the defendants and to protest the proceedings.

Despite the lack of credible evidence presented against them, both were convicted and sentenced to 5 years in prison including time served, which has been appealed by Legal Centre Lesvos lawyers. Unless their sentence is overturned or reduced on appeal, in practice this sentence will mean 2 further years in prison for these two young men, as they will be eligible for release after serving half the sentence. 

The trial of these two members of the Moria 6 constitutes a gross miscarriage of justice. The tragic result of today’s trial appears to form part of a systematic effort to crush any resistance to Europe’s border regime through collective punishment, by arbitrarily arresting and pressing criminal charges against migrants following migrant-led resistance, such as in the case of the Moria 35. In January 2021, the 32 of the Moria 35 who had been convicted in 2018 were finally cleared of all charges, which only confirms that the ordeal they faced, for more than 3.5 years of their lives, was a gross miscarriage of justice from the outset – as Legal Centre Lesvos and the solidarity movement around the case had protested all along. As in previous cases, it is apparent that the guilt of today’s defendants was determined by the State before the trial even took place. The Minister of Migration and Asylum himself stated in an interview given on 16 September 2020 that “the camp was burned by six Afghani refugees who have been arrested” – in circumvention of the fundamental principle of criminal law that all defendants have a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. 

While we are disappointed with today’s result, things could have been much worse for these two young men. The arson conviction alone could have carried a sentence of up to ten years in prison. If convicted on both charges, they would have faced up to a 15 year prison sentence. The Legal Centre Lesvos will continue to defend the two young men, to fight for their release from incarceration and to work towards their conviction being overturned on appeal. Alongside other comrades in Lesvos and internationally, including powerful solidarity among the Hazara community demonstrated today outside court, we will continue to fight for justice for the Moria 6 and to stand in solidarity with all those who face the unjust collective punishment of Europe’s border regime.

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