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Greece: Six months on deadly shipwreck survivors still denied justice

© Greek Coast Guard/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Greek authorities failed to mobilise appropriate resources for a rescue

Survivors’ testimonies challenge the authorities’ claim that people on the Adriana did not want to be rescued  

The Greek authorities’ response to the Pylos tragedy is a crucial test of their willingness to investigate human rights violations against’ - Adriana Tidona

Six months since the deadly shipwreck in Pylos, Greece, an official investigation by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch found that there has been little progress into the credible allegations of the Hellenic Coast Guard’s actions and omissions that contributed to the catastrophic shipwreck.

The Adriana, a severely overcrowded fishing trawler, capsized on 14 June leading to the death of more than 600 people. It had started its journey from Libya five days earlier with an estimated 750 migrants and people seeking asylum, including children, mainly from Syria, Pakistan, and Egypt. Only 104 of those onboard survived, and 82 bodies were recovered.  

Amnesty and Human Rights Watch interviewed 21 survivors, 5 relatives of 5 people still missing, and representatives of the Hellenic Coast Guard, the Greek police, nongovernmental organisations, United Nations and international agencies. 

They found that in the 15 hours between receiving the first alert that the Adriana was in their search-and-rescue region, and when it capsized, Greek authorities failed to mobilise appropriate resources for a rescue. The authorities were clearly aware of indicators of distress, such as overcrowding and insufficient food and water, on the Adriana, and, survivors said, knew about corpses on board and requests for rescue.   

Survivors’ testimonies also challenge the authorities’ claim that people on the Adriana did not want to be rescued, which in any event would not have relieved the Hellenic Coast Guard of its obligation to take all measures necessary to ensure safety at sea. Survivors consistently said that they pleaded repeatedly for rescue, including to the Coast Guard itself. 

Survivors said that a Coast Guard patrol boat attached a rope to the Adriana and pulled, causing the boat to capsize. They also alleged that, after the boat capsized, the Coast Guard boat was slow to activate rescue operations, failed to maximise the number of people rescued, and engaged in dangerous manoeuvres. 

Adriana Tidona, Migration Researcher at Amnesty International, said:  

“The Greek authorities’ response to the Pylos tragedy is a crucial test of their willingness to investigate human rights violations against racialised people on the move at the country’s border. 

“Greece must ensure that survivors and families’ of the hundreds who lost their lives can safely and effectively participate in proceedings to the highest degree possible and ensure that investigations are carried out in a timely manner, guaranteeing the completeness and integrity of evidence admitted.”  

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

“The Pylos shipwreck appears to be another tragic example of Greek authorities’ abdication of responsibility for saving lives at sea. A full accounting of what happened is paramount to securing truth and justice for survivors and families of the victims and to help avoid future deaths.” 

Amnesty and Human Rights Watch are calling on the authorities to ensure allegations against Hellenic Coast Guard officers and other Greek officials are thoroughly investigated and prosecute where there is sufficient evidence of wrongdoing.

Serious shortcomings

The nature of ongoing judicial investigations in Greece raises concerns about the prospects for accountability for the shipwreck, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch said. Nine survivors, currently under arrest, are facing serious charges before the Criminal Court of Kalamata in Greece, including for causing a shipwreck. In parallel, the Naval Court opened an investigation in June into the potential responsibility of the Coast Guard and in September, 40 survivors filed a complaint with the same court alleging that Greek authorities were responsible for the shipwreck. It is unclear how a finding by one court might affect the other. 

Survivors’ testimony points to potential serious procedural shortcomings that might affect both investigations, including the confiscation of survivors’ mobile phones, some of which may contain key evidence of the events. The Naval Court prosecutor only in late September requested  Hellenic Coast Guard officers’ phones, which could also contain evidence, and as of early December, only 13 survivors had been summoned to provide statements. 

In November, the Greek Ombudsman opened an inquiry into the Coast Guard’s actions, citing its refusal to conduct an internal disciplinary investigation. The European Ombudsman opened  an inquiry into the role of the EU border agency Frontex, whose aircraft initially sighted the vessel, while the agency’s Fundamental Rights Officer is pursuing his own investigation.  

In contributions to the European Ombudsman’s inquiry, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch contend that Frontex should have continued its monitoring of the Adriana and issued a mayday call. Frontex told the organisations that it is the responsibility of national authorities to coordinate search and rescue operations and that it did not issue a mayday alert because it did not assess an “imminent risk to human life.”  

The Greek Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Insular Policy replied to the organisations’ letters, saying that protecting human life at sea constitutes its “highest professional and moral obligation” and that the Coast Guard and the Joint Rescue Coordination Center Piraeus, abide by the legal and operational frameworks in place in search and rescue operations. However, citing ongoing judicial and nonjudicial investigations, the Coast Guard declined to answer the organisations’ questions or respond to their findings. 

The historic failures in Greece’s investigations of shipwrecks involving people on the move and the widespread impunity for systemic human rights violations at its borders raise concerns about the adequacy of the ongoing judicial inquiries into the Pylos tragedy, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty said. In 2022, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Greece for the shortcomings in its rescue efforts and in its subsequent investigations in the 2014 Farmakonisi shipwreck in which 11 people died. 

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