Freedom at last for Akif Razouli and Amir Zahiri
Akif Razouli and Amir Zahiri, the two young Afghans accused of smuggling, were released by the court of Mytilini, Greece, on 8 December.
Akif and Amir travelled on a smuggler’s boat from Afghanistan, the latter with his pregnant wife and their young child. Before the real smuggler abandoned them, he handed control of the boat to Amir, just as Akif happened to be sitting next to him. They were sentenced summarily, and without evidence against them, to 50 years in prison. Amir saw his second child for the first time inside the courtroom.
Their appeal, heard after many adjournments, resulted in Akif’s acquittal of all charges, while Amir’s sentence was changed to 8 years in prison, allowing for his release after serving his mandatory sentencing period.
Left MEP Stelios Kouloglou, Clare Daly and Mick Wallace were present at the trial, in solidarity with Akif and Amir.
After the announcement of the decision, Stelios Kouloglou MEP (Syriza, Greece) said: “Akif Razouli has been in prison for two and a half years without having done anything and without the slightest evidence against him. From now on, the Greek authorities will have to pay for the consequences of this very great injustice, almost destroying a man’s life. The court’s decision partially restores the country’s image abroad. The verdict is the first victory of the initiative I have launched with other MEPs, for the hundreds of refugees unjustly sentenced. I want to thank them, as well as Alexandros Georgoulis, Dimitris Houlis and the other worthy advocates of the two defendants. In January, we have the major trial of Mohammad Hanad Abdi, who has been unjustly sentenced to 142 years in prison. We will be back here again.”
Clare Daly MEP (Independents 4 Change, Ireland) added: “Our feelings are a mixture of relief and outrage. It is fantastic that after over two & a half years in prison, they are finally free. But they should never have been there in the first place. They are two of over 2,000 migrants who languish in Greek jails for driving boats. This is completely opposed to the UN Protocol on Smuggling, which is clear that humanitarian aid and migrants should never be penalised. The ambiguity in the EU Facilitators Package, which fails to define smuggling and has been used by Greece to act this way, has to be cleared up. We will be redoubling our efforts to force the Commission to act. The claim of so-called European values is blown away by these infringements of human rights.”
The conviction of Akif Razouli and Amir Zahiri is not a unique case. Sentencing refugees to extensive prison sentences as smugglers is common practice in Greece, where the government aims at preventing more refugees from reaching the country. This is based on Law 4251/2014, which states that anyone at the helm of a vessel carrying refugees and migrants can be arrested and sentenced as a trafficker to a prison term equal to 3 years per passenger, and an additional 15 years per person who may lose their life during the journey.
The reality, however, is different: during the journey, the real smuggler abandons the ship after first handing over the helm – often at the gunpoint – to an unfortunate refugee nearby. When the Coast Guard locates the boat, the person manning it is often arrested and convicted as the smuggler.
Akif’s and Amir’s acquittal is also a victory for the international initiative behind “142 years in prison: A fair trial for Mohammad”, which is supported by more than 2,000 entities, including MEPs, NGOs, and members of civil society, and which aims to support all the refugees who fall victim to this injustice.
Mohammad Hanad Abdi, a political refugee from Somalia, who is the face of this campaign, was sentenced to 142 years in prison, on the same charge, while crossing from Turkey to Greece. The real smuggler abandoned his boat but, before doing so, handed him the helm. He did not know how to steer a boat but, despite the rough seas, he managed to save the lives of the 33 persons on board , before the Greek Coast Guard intercepted the boat. Mohammad was arrested and summarily convicted as a smuggler. The hearing of his appeal is scheduled for 9 January 2023 in Lesvos. Members of the “142 Years in Prison: A Fair Trial for Mohammad” initiative will be there to support him.
In 2019 alone, 1,905 people were sent to Greek prisons, convicted as smugglers, after trials lasting an average of 28 minutes, often without the presence of a translator, resulting in an average sentence of 44 years. Despite the pandemic and lockdowns worldwide, their number at the beginning of 2022 increased to 2,282. Convicted “smugglers” in Greek prisons are the second biggest category of prisoners.