Four Afghans get 10-year jail terms for Greek migrant camp fire

A Greek court on Saturday sentenced four Afghan asylum seekers convicted of starting fires that burnt down Europe’s largest migrant camp last year to 10 years in prison each.

The court in Chios found the defendants guilty of arson while their lawyers denounced a “lack of sense of fairness”.

No one died in the fires.

The lawyers told AFP they had immediately filed for an appeal after the sentence was handed down. 

The young Afghans were taken to the court handcuffed and were expected to return to the Avlona jail outside Athens, were they were held before the trial. 

In March, two other Afghan youths were detained in the same facility for five years in connection with the case. 

The Moria camp on the Aegean island of Lesbos housed more than 10,000 people before it was destroyed by two fires in September 2020.

Media were not allowed inside the courtroom at the end of the trial owing to coronavirus precautions.

Around 20 people, mainly members of foreign solidarity groups, gathered outside the court meanwhile to call for the defendants to be freed. 

–“Targeted” for ethnic reasons–

Defence lawyers said the Afghans did not get a fair trial.

They said three had documents showing they were under 18 at the time of arrest but were not recognised as minors. 

The prosecution is based in large part on the testimony of another Afghan asylum-seeker who identified the six as the perpetrators.

But according to defence lawyers, the witness was not in court Friday and did not appear for the trial in March as he could not be located.

The defendants claim they were targeted by the witness, an ethnic Pashtun, as all six are Hazara, a persecuted minority in Afghanistan.

Other witnesses for the prosecution were police officers, firefighters called to the scene in September 2020 and staff from the European Asylum Service and non-governmental groups who worked at the camp.

Built in 2013 to hold up to 3,000 people, the Moria camp was overwhelmed in 2015 as a huge wave of people began arriving on small boats from nearby Turkey.

The camp — home to asylum-seekers from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia seeking a better life in the European Union — quickly became a byword for squalor and violence.

The two fires broke out on September 8 and 9 as tensions soared amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Witnesses told AFP a dispute had broken out as 200 migrants refused to quarantine after either testing positive for Covid-19 or coming into contact with someone infected.

Around 13,000 asylum-seekers, among them families with children, pregnant women and people with disabilities, had to sleep in the open for a week after the camp was destroyed. 

Authorities have since built a temporary camp on Lesbos that hosts around 6,000 people.

The EU has allocated 276 million euros ($336 million) to build a new permanent camp on Lesbos, and for similar facilities on the islands of Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros.

Around 10,000 asylum-seekers are currently living on these five Aegean islands, the vast majority of them hoping to settle elsewhere in the EU. 

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