Nine suspected crew members of sinking migrant smuggling ship appear in Greece court

Nine men suspected of crewing a migrant smuggling ship that sank off Greece leaving more than 500 missing appeared in court Tuesday for questioning, as new accounts emerged on the sinking and the appalling conditions on the trip from Libya towards Italy.

The Egyptian suspects face charges that include participation in a criminal organization, manslaughter and causing a shipwreck. The hearing took place in Greece’s southern city of Kalamata.

Only 104 men and youths – Egyptians, Pakistanis, Syrians and Palestinians – survived one of the worst migrant shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea early on June 14; 81 bodies have been recovered.

Survivors said women and children were trapped in the hold as the ship capsized and sank within minutes to one of the deepest spots in the Mediterranean.

New survivor accounts emerged Tuesday confirming that about 750 people paid thousands of dollars each for a berth on the battered blue fishing trawler, seeking a better life in Europe.

In sworn testimonies provided over the weekend, and seen by The Associated Press, survivors described shocking conditions on the five-day journey. Most of the passengers were denied food and water, and those who couldn’t bribe the crew to get out of the hold were beaten if they tried to reach deck level.

The testimonies also echoed previous accounts that the steel-hulled trawler sank in calm seas during a botched attempt to tow it. This clashes with the Greek coast guard’s insistence that neither its patrol boat that escorted the trawler in its last hours nor any other vessel attached a tow rope.

“The Greek ship cast a rope and it was tied to our bows,” survivor Abdul Rahman Alhaz said in his sworn testimony. “Then we moved forward, but not for more than two minutes. We shouted ‘stop, stop!’ because our boat was listing. (It) was in bad shape and overloaded, and shouldn’t have been towed.”

Alhaz, a 24-year-old Palestinian from Syria, said he paid $4,000 to board the ship at Tobruk in eastern Libya. He said the “people in charge” on the trawler were all Egyptians, and recognized seven suspects from pictures Greek authorities showed him.

“Most of the Pakistanis were in the hold, and were lost with the boat,” he said. “One of the crew had told me there were more than 400 Pakistanis on the boat, and only 11 were saved.”

These didn’t include the wife and two children of Rana Husnain Neseer, 23, who were in the hold. Neseer himself, who said he paid 7,000 euros for the trip, traveled on deck.

“About 750 people were on board,” he said. “(The crew) didn’t give us food or water, and hit us with a belt to keep us from standing up.”

Neseer said other passengers told him that a tow line was attached by a “big ship” just before the sinking. He didn’t see that “as I was bent low and praying.” But he felt the vessel sharply list. “We all went to the other side to balance it, which made our boat tilt in the other direction and sink,” added Neseer, who recognized four of the survivors as crew members.

Fellow Pakistani Azmat Khan Muhammad Salihu, 36, identified three suspects, including one who hit him when he tried to leave the hold, and one who struck passengers with a belt.

Being in the hold, he had no first-hand account of why the ship sank and said there were no women and children in his section below decks.

“I was saved because I found an opening and got out,” his testimony said. “I called to the others to follow me but … nobody managed to escape.”

Greece has been widely criticized for not trying to save the migrants before the sinking in international waters. Officials in Athens say the passengers refused any help and insisted on proceeding to Italy, adding that it would have been too dangerous to try and evacuate hundreds of unwilling people off an overcrowded ship.

Asked about the incident as World Refugee Day was marked across the globe Tuesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: “It is horrible, what happened, and the more urgent is that we act.”

Von der Leyen, the head of the European Union’s executive arm, said the EU should help African countries like Tunisia, where many migrants leave for Europe, to stabilize their economies, as well as finalize a long-awaited reform of the 27-nation bloc’s asylum rules.

She did not, however, mention Libya, from where the doomed trawler and many similarly overloaded Europe-bound boats depart across the particularly dangerous Mediterranean migration route.

Five other human smuggling suspects were arrested in Pakistan this week and some allegedly confessed to sending some of the Pakistanis who were on the trawler, officials in Islamabad said Tuesday.

Relatives of at least 124 people in Pakistan have contacted authorities to find out about missing loved ones believed to have been on the trawler, the officials said.

The full details of the sinking remain unclear.

Photos and videos from before the sinking show people crammed on all available open spaces of the trawler.

One survivor, Ali Sheikhi from the northeast Syrian town of Kobani, told Kurdish TV news channel Rudaw that the smugglers didn’t allow life jackets and threw whatever food the passengers had into the sea.

Speaking late Sunday by phone from a closed reception center near Athens where survivors were taken, Sheikhi said he was directed to the hold but paid the smugglers to got out onto deck.

By the time the ship sank, they had been at sea for five days. Water ran out after a day and a half, and he said some passengers resorted to drinking seawater.

Sheikhi also said the trawler went down after its engine broke down and another vessel tried to tow it. “In the pulling, (the trawler) sank,” he said.

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