Majority of Refugees protesting on Sapphous Square declared innocent!

12 of the 13 refugees who were charged in court for protests on Sapphous square in 2017 were declared innocent, one person was convicted for resisting arrest. The judge indirectly acknowledged that the horrible conditions of Moria camp justify their action of camping on the central square of the town of Mytilini for several weeks.

On Thursday 10 October, thirteen refugees from Afghanistan and Iran faced trial for protesting and sleeping in Mytilene’s Sapphous Square in November 2017.  Six attended in person in Mytilene court. They were charged with setting up tents in public space. Eleven of the thirteen were charged with disobedience, while two were charged with resisting arrest. Twelve were cleared of all charges, while one person, who was not present in court and was not legally represented, was convicted of resisting arrest, receiving a three-month suspended sentence. The court recognized that the convicted person had acted from ‘non-contemptible incentives’.

Among the accused were the “Plaza Girls” who eventually managed to leave the Island of Lesvos and lived in the refugee accommodation Hotel City Plaza until it was closed under pressure of the Nea Dimokratia government. The group has printed and publicized zines, poetry and videos on the situation of refugees in Greece and in Moria.

Plaza Girls in Athens

The court case falls in a chain of trials against migrants protesting against the geographic restrictions to the Greek Islands and the conditions in Moria camp who were eventually declared innocent: the Sapfous 122 and the Moria 8, while the letter spent eleven months in pre-trial detention.

The protest began on 20 October 2017, when a large group of people from Afghanistan left Moria camp, citing the frequent violence that resulted from undignified living conditions, overcrowding and unequal treatment. Roughly forty people decided to stay in Sapphous Square in protest over their conditions for over a month. Despite the presence of a strong community of solidarity, rightwing groups confronted the protesters in the square several times.

On 20 November 2017, the municipality called for a general strike with speeches on the square. Nationalist groups joined the assembly. The refugee protesters left the square during this time and marched the same day to the UNHCR office to present their demands for freedom of movement.

When they tried to return to the square the next day, they were surrounded by police and harassed by hostile local groups. The police aggressively pushed the refugees aside, surrounded them and evicted the square. During this action, some of the protesters, including a young child, were hurt by the police. While the refugee protestors were violently expelled from the square by the police, they did not engage in any violence themselves.

The defence lawyers of HIAS Greece argued that the accused had resorted to sleeping in Sapphous square on the basis of necessity, due to the extreme conditions in Moria camp. Former Mayor Spyros Gallinos, testifying for the Prosecution, agreed that conditions in Moria at the time were extreme, arguing that this was the consequence of the policies of the European Union.

The case for prosecution rested on the testimony of a police officer who had failed to attend court. In his closing statement, however, the Public Prosecutor argued that the defendants should be convicted on all charges. While the Prosecutor accepted that conditions in Moria may have been terrible, he stated that this was no excuse for ‘violating Greek law’, asking ‘what were these people expecting to find, a paradise?’ He said they should have found a more suitable alternative, but could not identify such a space and had previously failed to question the defendants on their attempt to find alternative accommodation.

The case shows that even the Greek justice system acknowledges that the living conditions in Moria are unbearable and protest is well justified. Now, actions have to follow: Open the Islands, Close Moria Camp! Stop accusing people fighting for basic rights and freedom!