Suspected smugglers deny charges over migrant shipwreck off Greece

Members of a family of a missing person search for informations after shipwreck survivors transferred to a Greek migrant camp in Malakasa, near Athens, on June 16, 2023. (PHOTO / AFP)

ATHENS – Nine men charged over the worst shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea this year that killed at least 82 people, denied any wrongdoing in court on Tuesday, while the European Union promised more funds and actions on migration.

Greece, which has come under increasing scrutiny over its response to the June 12-13 disaster, is still searching the sea in the wider area, though the chance of finding more survivors was seen as virtually nil.

The 20-30 meter long fishing boat packed with hundreds of migrants sank off Greece's south-west coast in some of the deepest waters of the Mediterranean, on a journey which started from Libya and was supposed to end in Italy.

The suspected smugglers, all from Egypt and aged between 20 and 40 years, appeared before a prosecutor on Tuesday to respond to charges that included manslaughter, setting up a criminal organization, migrant smuggling and causing a shipwreck

It was thought to be carrying up to 700 migrants from Egypt, Syria and Pakistan but only 104 people have been rescued. The coast guard retrieved three more bodies on Monday, six days after the disaster, and one on Tuesday, revising the death toll to 82.

Hundreds more are feared dead.

The suspected smugglers, all from Egypt and aged between 20 and 40 years, appeared before a prosecutor on Tuesday to respond to charges that included manslaughter, setting up a criminal organization, migrant smuggling and causing a shipwreck.

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They all denied any wrongdoing, according to state broadcaster ERT.

One of their lawyers said on Monday that his client was not a smuggler but a victim who sought a better life in Europe and had paid to be taken to Italy.

The ageing vessel was thought to have departed from Egypt, then picked up passengers in the Libyan coastal city of Tobruk on June 10 before setting sail for Italy. Greek authorities said survivors told them they paid $4,500 each for the journey.

Greece was alerted by Italy over the boat's presence in its search and rescue jurisdiction on June 12. The boat had been approached by merchant vessels and shadowed by the Greek coastguard for several hours before capsizing and sinking.

The ageing vessel was thought to have departed from Egypt, then picked up passengers in the Libyan coastal city of Tobruk on June 10 before setting sail for Italy. Greek authorities said survivors told them they paid $4,500 each for the journey

But the exact circumstances of the vessel sinking despite the presence of the coast guard were still unclear.

Kathimerini newspaper reported that survivors, who were summoned for additional testimonies over the weekend, said for the first time that the coast guard tried to tow their vessel.

Greek authorities said the boat repeatedly refused Greek help saying it wanted to go to Italy. They have denied accounts that the boat flipped after the coastguard attempted to tow it.

In Brussels, the European Union decided to earmark 15 billion euros as part of its 2024-2027 budget to boost migration policies.

READ MORE: 14 suspects arrested in Pakistan over Greece boat disaster

The money will be used, among other things, to foster partnerships with third countries, provide help to refugees in the Middle East and react to humanitarian crises, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.

"It is horrible what happened and the more urgent it is that we act", von der Leyen said when asked about the shipwreck.