Crete: Fisherman faces sentence of 4760 years for smuggling

Joint statement by borderline-europe, Can't Evict Solidariy, CPT - Aegean Migrant Solidarity and Alarm Phone

+++ UPDATE 06.03.23: H. Elfallah was sentenced this morning to 280 years. He was found guilty, although the court "took into account his reasons." He was convicted together with a second person who said of himself that he was the captain. The other four defendants were acquitted. +++

On November 22, 2022, a fishing boat with nearly 500 people on board entered the Greek port of Paleochora, Crete. After it lost control in strong winds and had been drifting in the sea, the Greek Coast Guard went out to the rescue and towed the vessel ashore. Immediately afterwards, they arrested seven survivors who had tried to take care of the ship's steering. Among them were H. Elfallah and his 15-year-old son. The father, who is accused of smuggling 476 people, will stand trial in Crete on Monday, 06 March.

It should go without saying that a boat needs to be piloted by someone, especially a boat of this size. A boat of this size actually needs several people to take care of navigation, steering and mechanics. It is common that, if there are people in the group who have at least some seafaring experience, they take over the steering duties - which only makes sense and should be in the interest of everyone who claims to have the welfare of the people on board in mind.

In Europe, however, these people are arrested and treated like criminals, they are punished to deter others, they are used as scapegoats to deflect attention from the responsibility that Europe bears with its closed-borders policy that forces people to get on these boats and make these journeys in the first place. Cinically, they are often charged not only with smuggling, but additionally with "having endangered the lives of others" - while they are the ones who have made the journey safer for everyone.

H. Elfallah and his 15-year-old son are two of those caught in these crosshairs. The father is charged with his own "unauthorized entry" and the "unauthorized transport of 476 third-country nationals into Greek territory", with the aggravating circumstances of "endangering the lives of the passengers", "acting for profit" and "belonging to a criminal organization". According to Article 30 of the Greek Migration Law, he thus faces 10 years per person transported, which gives a total sentence of up to 4760 years.

The charges against the minor are currently unclear.

Elfallah is a 45-year-old father of four, a fisherman from Egypt. After one of his sons left for the United Kingdom, he and his 15-year-old son wanted to follow him. On November 21, 2022, they boarded a large fishing vessel in Libya, along with hundreds of other people.

Elfallah could not afford the cost of several thousand euros for the trip for himself and his son. In exchange for a cheaper price, he and his son agreed to do some chores - something that is very common on the flight route to Europe.

Refugees usually have to steer the boats themselves. While in the past smugglers took their "clients" to their desired destination, e.g. drop them off safely on the other side of the Aegean, due to the ever-increasing militarisation of borders and the criminalisation of migration, this has become too high a risk and therefore not been part of the offer for years.

Elfallah and his son did not want to take on these tasks, they did not want to take on the responsibility of hundreds of people on a boat ill-equipped for such a journey, without preparation. But these are the conditions people on the move face today when they try to reach European shores.

But because of this, he is now charged not only with smuggling, but also with acting for profit. This is a particularly perfidious abuse of a law whose purpose is supposedly to protect refugees from exploitation. This means that the law punishes not only those it purports to protect, but in reality the most marginalized among them, who cannot afford the trip and are thus forced to expose themselves to even greater risk - something we have seen in other cases, such as the Paros3.

After their ship ran into distress south of Crete and was pulled ashore by the Greek coast guard, Elfallah and his 15-year-old son were separated. While the 15-year-old was taken to a camp for minors, the father was directly detained. He has been in pre-trial detention in Chania prison ever since.

Together with Mohamad, the son of H. Elfallah and the brother of the 15-year-old minor, we demand:

  • That the charges against both the father and the minor son be dropped
  • Freedom for all those imprisoned for “boat driving” despite the fact that there is no alternative to reach the European Union
  • An end to the criminalization of migration and the incarceration of people on the move.

Numerous people have already been convicted and imprisoned for years - regardless of the fact that they were trying to bring themselves and others to safety. As documented by CPT - Aegean Migrant Solidarity, borderline-europe and Deportation Monitoring Aegean, the filing of such charges against migrants arriving on the Greek islands has been systematically used by the Greek state for several years. The arrests that follow these often-unfounded accusations of smuggling are arbitrary, and the trials flout basic standards of fairness. Without sufficient evidence, they are usually arrested upon arrival and kept in pre-trial detention for months. When their case finally comes to court, their trials average only 38 minutes in length, leading to an average sentence of 44 years and fines over 370.000 Euro. Right now, around 2.000 people are detained in Greek prisons for that reason, forming the second-largest group in Greek prisons.

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Sunday, 05 March 2023