Greece boat disaster: Trafficking suspects plead not guilty

Nine Egyptian men accused of causing a disaster last week when a vessel carrying hundreds of people sank off the Greek coast have pleaded not guilty.

The nine suspects – all aged between 20 and 40 – are accused of people-smuggling and other offences. A lawyer for one of the men said his client was a passenger, not a smuggler. At least 78 migrants are known to have died in the disaster but many more are feared to have drowned. The UN’s human rights office says that up to 500 people are still missing.

The BBC has obtained evidence casting doubt on the Greek coastguard’s account of the shipwreck.

Analysis of the movement of other ships in the area suggests the overcrowded fishing vessel was not moving for at least seven hours before it capsized. But the coastguard still claims that during these hours the boat was on a course to Italy and not in need of rescue. Greek officials maintain those on board said they did not want help and were not in danger until just before their boat sank. The nine suspects all appeared at the Kalamata Court on Monday to face charges of negligent manslaughter, exposing lives to danger, causing a shipwreck and human trafficking.

Alexandros Dimaresis, a lawyer for one of the accused, said that his client was innocent and “paid the smugglers to be taken to Europe”. “He is not a smuggler himself. He was just a passenger,” Mr Dimaresis said outside court. The suspects will be back in court on Tuesday, when it will be decided whether they will remain in jail until the start of the trial. Meanwhile, Pakistani authorities have arrested 14 people in connection with the alleged trafficking of several migrants who drowned in the disaster.

The government in Islamabad has ordered a high-level inquiry to investigate the human trafficking network thought to be involved, a statement from Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s office said. At least 21 of those who are missing came from the Kotli district in Pakistan’s part of the Himalayan Kashmir region, police said. Two of the 12 Pakistanis who survived the sinking also came from the same town. Since the fishing boat carrying up to 750 people went down 50 nautical miles off Pylos in southern Greece, the role of the coastguard has come under increasing scrutiny. The UN has called for an investigation into Greece’s handling of the disaster, amid claims more action should have been taken earlier to initiate a full-scale rescue attempt.