Greece: Deadly shipwreck investigations must provide 'truth and justice' for survivors

© Amnesty International

Human rights delegation investigates the shipwreck in Pylos                                                                                         

Concerns over Greece’s longstanding failure to ensure accountability on violent and unlawful pushbacks at its border

‘My life has been taken from me’ – Syrian survivor

‘This should be the last and not the latest in an unconscionably long list of tragedies in the Mediterranean’ - Esther Major

Contradicting accounts from survivors and Greek authorities around the circumstances of the deadly Pylos shipwreck highlights the urgent need for an effective, independent, and impartial investigation, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today (3 Aug).  

The Adriana fishing vessel was carrying an estimated 750 people when it sank on 14 June off the coast of Pylos. Accounts from several of the 104 survivors suggest that the vessel was towed by a Greek coast guard boat causing the fatal wreck. The Greek authorities have strongly denied these claims. 

A delegation from Amnesty and Human Rights Watch visited Greece between 4 and 13 July as part of ongoing research into the circumstances of the shipwreck and steps toward accountability. They interviewed 19 survivors of the shipwreck, 4 relatives of the missing, the UN and international agencies, charities, and representatives of the Hellenic Coast Guard and the Greek Police.  

The initial observations of the shipwreck confirm the concerns reported by several other reputable sources. Survivors interviewed by the delegation consistently stated that the Hellenic Coast Guard vessel dispatched to the scene attached a rope to the Adriana and started towing causing it to sway and then capsize. The survivors consistently said that passengers asked to be rescued and that they witnessed others on the boat plead for a rescue by satellite phone in the hours before their boat capsized.

In a meeting with Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, senior officials of the Hellenic Coast Guard said individuals on the boat limited their request for assistance to food and water and expressed their intention to proceed to Italy. They said the crew of the Coast Guard vessel came close to the Adriana and used ropes to approach the boat to assess whether passengers wanted help, but that after the first “negotiations”, passengers threw the rope back and the boat continued its journey. 

Judith Sunderland, Associate Europe and Central Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, said:  

“The disparities between survivors’ accounts of the Pylos shipwreck and the authorities’ version of the events are extremely concerning.

“The Greek authorities with support and scrutiny from the international community should ensure that there is a transparent investigation to provide truth and justice for survivors and families of the victims and hold those responsible to account.”   

Esther Major, Amnesty International’s Senior Research Adviser for Europe, said: 

“This preventable tragedy demonstrates the bankruptcy of EU migration policies predicated on the racialised exclusion of people on the move and deadly deterrence.

“This should be the last and not the latest in an unconscionably long list of tragedies in the Mediterranean. The EU should reorient its border policies towards rescue at sea and safe and legal routes for people seeking asylum, refugees and migrants.”   

Unlawful pushbacks by Greek authorities

The Greek authorities' longstanding failure to ensure accountability for violent and unlawful pushbacks at the country’s borders raises concerns over their ability and willingness to carry out effective and independent investigations.  

Lessons should be learned from the European Court of Human Rights decision in 2022 about the 2014 “Farmakonisi” shipwreck in which survivors argued that their boat had capsized because the Hellenic Coast Guard used dangerous maneuvers to tow them towards Turkish waters. The Court condemned Greece for the authorities’ failures in handling rescue operations and for shortcomings in the subsequent investigation of the incident including how victims’ testimony was handled.   

National investigations

Greek authorities have opened two criminal investigations, one targeted at the alleged smugglers, and another into the actions of the coast guard. It is vital for these investigations to comply with international human rights standards of impartiality, independence, and effectiveness.  

The judicial investigations should be under the supervision of the Supreme Court Prosecutor’s Office. The Greek authorities should also ensure that the Greek Ombudsman’s office is promptly provided with information and resources necessary to carry out its functions as the National Mechanism for Investigating Incidents of Arbitrariness in relation to any disciplinary investigation.    

In view of the seriousness and international significance of the Pylos tragedy, Greek authorities should seek out and welcome international and/or European assistance and cooperation in the conduct of national investigations as an additional guarantee of independence, effectiveness and transparency.   

Thorough investigation needed

A full and credible investigation into the shipwreck should seek to clarify any responsibility for both the sinking of the ship and delays or shortcomings in the rescue efforts that may have contributed to the appalling loss of life. The investigation should involve taking the testimonies of all survivors under conditions that guarantee their trust and safety.  

All forensic evidence such as traces of communications, videos, and photographs, should be collected, assessed and safeguarded to facilitate accountability processes. Any property such as cell phones taken from survivors for investigative purposes should be appropriately logged and returned within a reasonable amount of time.   

Several survivors also said that the authorities confiscated their phones following the shipwreck but did not give them any related documentation or tell them how to retrieve their property. Nabil, a Syrian survivor told the human rights groups:

“It’s not only the evidence of the wreck that has been taken from me, it is my memories of my friends who were lost, my life has been taken from me”.  

All of those involved in or with knowledge of the incident including the Hellenic Coast Guard, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), the captains and crews of the two merchant vessels, and others who took part in the rescue operation after the shipwreck should be invited or required to testify and cooperate fully and promptly with the investigations.  

In parallel to the national investigation, the EU Ombudsman has announced that it will open an inquiry into the role of Frontex in search and rescue (SAR) activities in the Mediterranean, including in the Adriana shipwreck. This will pose important questions about the agency’s role, practices and protocols in the context of SAR operations and on what actions it has taken to comply with its fundamental rights obligations and EU laws during this and other shipwrecks.  

Amnesty and Human Rights Watch are continuing to investigate the Pylos shipwreck and demand justice for all those harmed. As part of their ongoing investigation, they sent letters requesting information to several key entities, including the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Insular Policy, the Prosecutors of the Supreme Court and of the Piraeus Naval Court and Frontex.  

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