By: Helena Smith | theguardian.com | 6 September 2023
Afghan refugee wrongly jailed in Greece wins thousands in compensation
A Greek court has awarded thousands of euros in compensation to an Afghan refugee who spent more than two years in prison after being wrongfully accused of people smuggling, in a rare step hailed by campaigners.
A three-member appeal court sitting on the Aegean island of Lesbos ruled that Akif Rasuli had not only been unjustly jailed, but should be recompensed for the ordeal he had been made to endure.
By order of the tribunal, Rasuli, originally sentenced to 50 years before having his conviction overturned, was handed €15,920 in compensation. Speaking outside the court in Mytilene, the island’s capital, on Tuesday, the jubilant 26-year-old described the decision as long-sought-after vindication.
“I suffered so much in prison for a crime I haven’t committed,” he told reporters, saying he was far from alone in being wrongfully convicted as a smuggler.
“Money will never give me back the time that has been taken from me, but I am thankful to my lawyers and so many other people who have stood with me for the past three years.”
Campaigners had highlighted Rasuli’s case as typical of the draconian sentences asylum seekers have frequently received after being falsely accused of smuggling undocumented migrants across the Aegean from Turkey.
More than 20% of Greece’s prison population has either been convicted or charged with the offence, according to statistics published by the pro-government Kathimerini newspaper.
Human rights defenders have increasingly raised fair trial concerns, arguing that alleged offenders are often tried on flimsy evidence, at breakneck speed and in the absence of translators.
Rasuli was arrested in September 2020 and accused of “facilitating illegal entry” into Greece of unregistered migrants within minutes of landing on the shores of Lesbos in a boat crammed with would-be asylum seekers desperate to reach Europe. He was singled out as the vessel’s pilot, lawyers say, because he happened to be standing next to its wheel. The real culprits – Turkish smugglers – abandoned the boat much earlier, they say, for fear of being detained in a country with tough anti-trafficking laws and a reputation of hostility towards NGOs assisting refugees.
Stelios Kouloglou, the Greek leftwing MEP who has spearheaded international efforts to highlight the refugees’ plight, told the Guardian that while the court’s decision was a victory, there could be thousands of others like Rasuli languishing in the country’s prisons.
“The campaign for justice will continue,” he said. “There are so many of these people, most wrongly convicted, who are in our jails. And in reality, this sort of compensation is nothing. Not even €1m would be enough for three years.”
Clare Daly, an Irish MEP with the Independents 4 Change party, who has frequently attended court proceedings in Lesbos, agreed that the compensation was too low. “I am of course delighted that he has been awarded some compensation by the Greek courts,” she wrote in an email.
“It is again, an official acknowledgment of the wrong done to him. But €16,000? For three years of your life stolen for trying to exercise your right to seek asylum, is hardly a fair price … The toll of the experience on his mental health will remain with him for ever.”
MEPs and solidarity groups have called for the revision of EU anti-smuggling directives that oblige member states to penalise perceived facilitation of illegal entry because so often it is misinterpreted by overzealous law enforcers in frontline countries like Greece.