Today, on 29 June 2021, the defendants for the fire in Vial Camp were all acquitted of the felony charge of arson and of the membership in a criminal group! Four people were found completely innocent, eight people were found guilty for resisting arrest and violence in the camp and one person for destroying public goods. One of the defendants was excluded from the procedure on the first day because he is a minor. Another person could not be found and arrested and therefore was not present in the trial. The nine people who were convicted received a 3.5 years suspended sentence, which the lawyers will appeal. All 15 people will now be transferred back to Athens and Chios and then be released, some on probation.
The court procedure followed arrests in the course of riots of camp residents against the disastrous living conditions in the hotspot camp of Vial. The protests took place in April 2020 after a Corona-curfew was imposed on Vial camp without providing sufficient basic supplies to the affected people. The rage of the people in the camp reached a peak when an Iraqi woman died in an isolation container without having received sufficient medical treatment.
All defendants who have now been officially cleared of the charges, had to stay 14 months in prison for minor offenses. Nine defendants are still not cleared of all charges. Within the entire procedure, the prosecution could not produce any well-substantiated evidence against the accused, basing the conviction of the defendants solely on the questionable identification of a security guard of Vial camp. Even the 15th defendant – who was officially recognized by the asylum service as minor – stayed in prison for 14 months, despite a maximum detention period of six months for minors in Greece. He has been finally released but still awaits his trial before a juvenile court.
The court procedure was riddled with irregularities. At first, the core witness of the prosecution, a security guard of Vial camp did not appear in court. He claimed to have recognized the defendants although it was dark and the people in the camp had their faces covered as a Covid precaution measure and especially because of the heavy smoke and tear gas. When he finally arrived at the court the next day and was questioned, the judges carried out an arbitrary identification procedure, calling the ten defendants that the witness claimed to have recognized out by name and asking them one by one to stand up and take down their medical masks. The witness just confirmed that he would recognize them each time and did not have to identify them on his own. Nevertheless, the witness testified that he had not seen the defendants setting fire. The second witness of the prosecution did not claim to have recognized any of the defendants.
The final judgement has been influenced by the thorough preparation of the defence lawyers who managed to show that the accusations were implausible and poorly substantiated. Also due to the solidarity and efforts of the defence witnesses – migrants who had lived with the accused in Vial camp at the time of the fire and who travelled to Lesvos on their own expense for four times to testify – the felony charge was eventually dropped. Two of the defence lawyers stated:
“We are very happy with this development. Proud that we made the court to hear our plies for a fair trial and hopeful that this is not the exception but it will be the rule from now on. Also we are sad that this people spend a year and a half pre-detained for a crime that they didn’t commit. We wish them a better future in Greece with justice and solidarity.”
Dimitris Choulis, Human Rights Legal Project Sámos and Alexandros Georgoulis
The trial joins a series of court cases targeting migrants for resistance against the inhuman treatment they are facing on the Greek islands. Only two weeks before the trial against the Vial 15, the Moria 6 were convicted in an unfair trial with flimsy evidence to long prison charges and found guilty of burning Moria camp on Lesvos Island.
While the migrants have been convicted, no one has been held accountable neither for the death of the woman in Vial camp nor the unknown deaths within other camps or at sea. Instead, it is again migrants who are bearing the weight of inhuman and distressing policies of segregation, encampment and incarceration of the EU. The real crime of putting human beings in unbearable living conditions, condoning even their deaths, has not been touched by any court. The problem is not the self-organized protests against this repression and the camp structures. The problem is the existence of the camps!