The Pylos Shipwreck one year on. The Pylos 9 Trial as a Case Study in Greece’s Criminalization of People on The Move

On 14 June 2023, the Mediterranean Sea witnessed its deadliest shipwreck in recent history. More than 600 men, women, and children lost their lives in this catastrophic incident. It occurred in international waters within the Greek Search and Rescue (SAR) zone, designating Greece as the state responsible for initiating any rescue operations in this area. In the aftermath of the tragedy, nine individuals faced incarceration on charges of smuggling and illegal entry into the country. Almost one year later, on 21 May, the Court of Kalamata acquitted the defendants of all the charges. While eight of them have since been released, one person remains detained, facing the risk of deportation.

Today, one year after the shipwreck, the Court’s ruling on those individuals, now known as the “Pylos 9”, has raised significant international attention and became an occasion to include several points in the public discourse on migration. The decision needs to be taken as a clear statement against the criminalization of people on the move and the subsequent jeopardization of their right to seek asylum. Moreover, the recent ruling is shedding light on the impunity and lack of accountability for those responsible for the tragic shipwreck.

This article, which includes the valuable testimony of Spiros Galinos, a member of the FreePylos9 campaign, retraces the events leading to the shipwreck, the plight of the survivors in its aftermath, the subsequent trial to the Pylos 9, and the latest developments. It will conclude with a reflection on the broader implications, particularly concerning the criminalization of smuggling in Greece and this trial’s political significance.

The shipwreck according to the reconstruction of Refugee Support Aegean

It is June 13, 2023. At 10:35 AM, the activist Nawal Soufi tweets: “I am managing the SOS of a boat with 750 people on board, which left Libya and is in distress now. People on board are at risk of drinking seawater, since drinkable water finished after the fourth day of navigation (…)” It is the first public reference to the vessel Adriana, on the fifth day of navigation after having left Tobruk, Libya, heading towards Italy. 15 hours later, between 01:46 AM and 02:06 AM of the 14 of June, the vessel capsizes and sinks. The rescue operations start only at 02:46, when the rescue ship Aiagaion Pelagos leaves the nearby port of Gythio.

In that 15-hour window between first notice from the boat and the moment of capsizing, the Italian Coast Guard and Frontex authorities had notified the Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG) of the presence of a boat in distress in their SAR waters. The organisation “Alarm phone” has received various calls from the passengers and alerted the HCG, too. According to the testimonies, at least two merchant vessels were ordered by the HCG to approach the Adriana, to provide food, water, and fuel. However, the HCG did not intervene with actual rescue missions until after the vessel sank.

The victims 

From the shipwreck, around 80 people who lost their lives were identified, while 104 people were rescued. However, at least 600 people, among them 100 children allegedly traveling in the vessel’s hold, have been declared missing. The 104 survivors were taken to the town of Kalamata. While 30 people were immediately taken to the hospital, over 70 people were “accommodated” in an old warehouse hall in the port and forced to sleep on mattresses on the floor, guarded by military personnel carrying guns, treating them as if they were criminals. Their mobile phones were confiscated, preventing them from contacting their family members and friends. According to Alarm Phone, which remained available to support relatives searching for their family members, the lack of information by Greek Authorities hindered relatives from seeing their detained family members or even from accessing their bodies for identification.

Shortly after the tragedy, on 16 and 17 June, many of the survivors were transferred to the Malakasa Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) outside Athens. According to Greek law, people in the RICs, cannot leave the facility, or see visitors during the identification and asylum claim procedure, which supposedly lasts up to 25 days. In practice, this results in the de facto detention of asylum applicants, despite their having committed no crime.

Although classified as vulnerable persons under Greek law[1], survivors of the shipwreck were not referred to appropriate facilities. Instead, with complete disregard for their traumatic experience, they were subjected to demanding asylum interviews under extremely truncated procedures. These procedures did not guarantee sufficient time for preparation, legal assistance, or appropriate psychosocial support. Survivors were asked to present the reasons for fleeing their countries in detail in interviews that did not meet basic procedural provisions for vulnerable persons. These interviews were conducted in containers of the Malakasa RIC via mobile phones, without the physical presence of the operators and interpreters from the Asylum Service. They were moreover not documented via audio recordings, as is required by the Greek Asylum Code.

The “Pylos 9” Trial

While in Kalamata, before getting access to legal and psychological assistance, the survivors were subjected to interrogations by the Greek authorities. Based on the testimonies of a few survivors, nine Egyptian nationals were arrested and deemed responsible for the shipwreck. Despite many of the survivors confirming that none of the people who had gotten paid for the voyage were on board, these nine were accused of taking on roles of greater responsibility on board the ship, for example distributing water or trying to control the crowd to stabilize the vessel as it was tilting. Hence, the “Pylos 9” were arrested and subsequently sent into pre-trial custody, with the accusation of smuggling and illegal entry, facing the risk of several life sentences.

After spending eleven months in pre-trial detention, on 21 May this year, the process took place in the Court of Kalamata. The Criminal Court of Kalamata acquitted the nine defendants accused by the Greek State of smuggling and illegal entry, declaring itself incompetent to adjudicate the charges of membership in a criminal organization and causing the Pylos shipwreck, which resulted in the deaths of over 600 people on 14 June 2023. This verdict is based on the fact that the alleged offenses by the Pylos 9 occurred in international waters, outside Greek territory and jurisdiction. The court also dropped the charges against them after recognizing that the passengers of the Adriana never had the intention to enter Greece, but rather to head to Italy.

In preparation for this article, we interviewed Spyros Galinos, a member of the FreePylos9 campaign. The Pylos9 campaign has been closely following the legal developments since the aftermath of the tragedy, providing legal support to the nine accused and mobilizing civil society to maintain public awareness of the facts. According to Spyros, the Pylos 9 should have been released after the acquittal of the charges. However, the local chief of the police forces, who reports to the Greek Ministry of Citizens Protection, has ordered the detention of the nine defendants while asylum claims were examined. This decision contradicts common practice since, as Greek law grants asylum seekers in Greece the right to legally stay in the country during their asylum process and to access the reception facilities. The police justified the detention by suggesting a risk of the defendants escaping the country. However, since the charges had been dropped, there was no grounds to suspect their intention of leaving the country. According to Spyros, this decision was highly arbitrary and possibly an attempted “revenge” against the trial outcome, which was perceived as a “win for the movement,” rather than a lawful decision.

After the trial, eight of the defendants were held in Nafplio prison in the Peloponnese and subsequently brought to the pre-removal detention center of Corinth. Their lawyers filed an objection against the detention decision of the administrative court of Corinth. The objection was eventually accepted, leading to their recent release. Currently, they are in Athens waiting for their asylum claim to be processed.

One of the defendants, a 19-year-old, was taken to the juvenile prison of Avlona. At the time of the trial, he had already filed his asylum claim. However, due to his young age, his asylum claim was examined more quickly than the others and was rejected in both the first and second instances, resulting in a definitive rejection. According to the Greek Asylum Law, he could face deportation. . Upon receiving the expulsion decision, he was first moved from Avlona prison to the pre-removal detention center (PRDC) of Petrou Ralli and he has recently been moved to the PRDC of Drama, where his case will be followed by a  local lawyer.

There is much uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the Pylos9 asylum applications. According to the Greek Government, Egypt is considered a safe country of origin, meaning that Egyptian nationals are unlikely to receive some kind of international protection.

Until 2019, victims of shipwrecks were identified as vulnerable individuals and entitled to apply for a special form of protection called humanitarian protection. However, the Greek asylum system discontinued this practice after 2019. As a result, it is unlikely that the Pylos 9 will receive protection based on being shipwreck victims, even though they are still considered vulnerable individuals under Greek law.


The Greek Coast Guard’s responsibilities

While the Court of Kalamata dropped the accusations against the Pylos 9, it also declared itself non-competent to investigate the case, since it happened in international waters. By doing so, it closed the case without investigating the responsibilities of the Hellenic Coast Guard in causing the shipwreck.

Other Media outlets such as The Guardian, the Greek investigative unit Solomon, and the German NGO Forensis have conducted in-depth independent investigations on the HCG, collecting testimonies from the survivors, and re-constructing 3D models of the vessel and interactive maps that retraced the Adirana’s path. Their findings raised many concerns about the timing and execution of the subsequent rescue operations carried out by the HCG. Not only did the HCG did intervene, but the survivors reported that the HCG actively caused the vessel’s capsizing, by attaching a rope to the fishing trawler and pulling it. The HCG stated that the patrol boat had used a rope earlier to approach the trawler to assess the situation, but the people on the trawler threw the rope back and continued their journey.

Thanks to the testimonies that answered the investigator’s question using the interactive map, Forensis’ investigation strongly suggests that the HCG holds crucial responsibilities for the shipwreck. According to the investigation, besides towing the boat with the rope, the HCG suggested the people in the vessel should continue their journey towards Italy, away from the Greek SAR zone, despite them being in clear distress. They furthermore neglected to respond to Frontex’s offer to send aerial surveillance to the scene and released the two intervened commercial ships from their duty to rescue, despite there not being enough space on the HCG vessel for all the people on board in case the Adriana capsized. Lastly, the HCG retreated from the scene after the shipwreck in such a way that created waves, which in turn made survival in the open sea more difficult; leaving survivors to fend for themselves at sea for a period of 20-30 minutes for no apparent reason.

Lastly, the HCG did not activate the cameras on the vessel they sent to the scene, or otherwise conceal the material these devices would have recorded. This was seen by Forensis as an attempt to distort the narrative around the event. This suspect is corroborated by the fact that the HCG confiscated survivors’ phones containing videos that might shed light on the events leading up to the capsizing and provided inaccurate and conflicting information regarding the migrant vessel’s location and speed.

Political scapegoats: the Pylos shipwreck and the criminalization of people on the move

The catastrophic shipwreck of the Adriana, claiming the lives of hundreds, including children, has left an indelible mark in our collective memory. The response of the Greek government, subsequent investigations, and the accusations against the “Pylos 9” have laid bare a systemic issue of Greece’s entrenched pattern of criminalizing the crossing of its external borders. The pattern of accusing people of “smuggling” is frequently exploited by political forces as a means to scapegoat migrants and evade the State’s accountability, rather than address their responsibilities under international obligations and human rights law. Moreover, the impunity surrounding the actions of the Greek Coast Guard, now exposed on an international scale, has further highlighted the extent to which Greece is complicit in undermining the right to seek asylum. Not only did the Coast Guard fail to intervene to prevent the tragedy, but there are also allegations of active involvement in actions that precipitated the capsizing of the vessel.

Greek criminalization of people on the move is not a new phenomenon and has been extensively documented. According to a report by Borderline Europe, arrests under the charge of “smuggling” following each disembarkation or border crossing have become routine practice since the 2015 EU’s migration agenda elevated the “combat against smuggling” to a primary focus. The report, which examines both the existing legal framework and its practical implementation, argues that these policies not only fail to safeguard the rights of arriving people and asylum seekers but actively subject them to harsh penalties, including lengthy prison terms, simply for crossing the border by boat or car. As of February 28, 2023, the number of individuals incarcerated in Greek prisons on smuggling charges stood at 2,154, comprising 20% of the total prison population and representing the second-largest demographic group among incarcerated individuals for criminal offenses in Greece. It is, therefore, a common practice among police authorities to start investigations upon every arrival of boats or vehicles transporting migrants, aimed at identifying the alleged “smuggler”, often identified as the driver of the boat or car, or whoever took a role of responsibility during the trip. Passengers may also undergo interrogations, particularly in cases where the driver’s identity is not immediately evident. However, focus on identifying someone as the smuggler, overlooking the passenger’s knowledge of the driver’s actual role or their relationship with smugglers at the point of departure, or other pertinent circumstances. This prioritization persists even in the aftermath of shipwrecks, when survivors are frequently in a state of shock and trauma, illustrating the authorities’ singular focus on identifying the

In this context, the court decision regarding the Pylos 9 holds significant political and judicial value, despite not addressing the circumstances behind the smuggling accusations. According to Spyros, the case’s dismissal, based on the court’s acknowledgment of its lack of jurisdiction—a fact evident from the beginning—reveals the vindictive nature of the 11-month imprisonment of these individuals. The decision highlights how the 9 of Pylos were used by the Greek government as the scapegoat for the tragedy, to divert blame for the shipwreck away from Greek authorities and shift public attention elsewhere. “For us in the Free Pylos 9 campaign, we consider this a victory because it validates what we have known all along,” Spyros stated. “We wanted the public to see how politicized and instrumentalized the Greek justice system is, lacking independence and aiming to criminalize people on the move.

According to Spyros, the decision is also crucial because it helps build case law for similar future scenarios. “This is not an isolated incident; many people have already been convicted under similar circumstances. This ruling contributes to the growing number of cases where charges are dropped rather than resulting in convictions”. The most significant aspect of the decision is not the verdict itself, but rather the implications for further investigation. “We strongly believe that the naval court delayed the preliminary investigations, anticipating that the Kalamata court would find the accused guilty of the shipwreck, thus negating the need for further inquiry. According to Spyros, this decision now obligates the court to investigate further, specifically the responsibilities of the Hellenic Coast Guard in causing the boat to capsize and failing to conduct a rescue. This obligation is further enforced by the high international attention this case has garnered, which presents an opportunity to pressure the Greek government to investigate the actions of Hellenic Coast Guard officials. There is hope that this will set a precedent, discouraging similar behavior from officials in the future.

To conclude, by criminalizing individuals merely for crossing borders, Greece not only fails to fulfil its obligations under the United Nations “Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air,” but also violates the Geneva Refugee Convention, which prohibits penalizing asylum seekers for unauthorized entry and thus impedes their right to seek asylum. These policies target migrants, subjecting them to systemic violations of their rights by state authorities from the moment they are identified as having partaken in and facilitated border crossings. In the absence of safe alternatives, individuals seeking protection are compelled to undertake perilous journeys by boat or car to reach Europe. While some assume these roles voluntarily, others do so out of financial necessity or coercion. Despite this complexity, Greek authorities routinely detain and charge those who have steered vehicles carrying migrants, exacerbating the criminalization of migration. In this context, and in light of all that has been discussed, it becomes evident that the Pylos incident was not an accident but rather the result of systematic human rights violations by Greek authorities, including violent pushback practices.




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[1] According to Article 1-λγ of the Asylum Code the following groups are considered as vulnerable groups:

children; unaccompanied children; direct relatives of victims of shipwrecks (parents, siblings, children, husbands/wives); disabled persons; elderly; pregnant women; single parents with minor children; victims of human trafficking; persons with serious illness; persons with cognitive or mental disability and victims of torture, rape or other serious forms of psychological, physical or sexual violence such as victims of female genital mutilation.

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