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Pserimos: Two human stories behind 13 Coast Guard shots on a refugee boat

On the recent ECtHR ruling regarding the 2014 Pserimos incident

“For Belal, we got justice in court, since it found that there had been a violation. A lot of people don’t get justice and this is a sign that something wrong is happening.”

Douaa Alkhatib, then wife of Belal who was fatally wounded by the Greek Coast Guard, interviewed by RSA, after the ECtHR ruling

“I was surprised that one person is worth one bullet. I was escaping death and war to seek life. Thus, it was really shocking to realise that what was waiting for me in that sea was only death.”

M.A., suffered a serious shoulder injury after being shot by the Greek Coast Guard

“Even after 10 years, the event still causes us nightmares.”

 N.T., M.A.’s wife, who was also on the boat together with their daughter

Thirteen (!) shots at the engine of a boat carrying refugees, one refugee seriously injured who subsequently died and another injured, a case that the Greek justice system has closed, and (yet another) condemnation of Greece by the European Court of Human Rights.

Just a few days ago, on April 16, 2024, the ECtHR’s conviction against Greece in the 2014 Pserimos case became irrevocable, as the three-month deadline for the Greek government to appeal passed. On this occasion, we publish today the story of B.T. and M.A., who were refugees on the boat that was shot at by the coast guard.

Pserimos, September 22, 2014.

Twelve refugees are in a boat crossing the border from Turkey to Greece. At 6.45am, the boat enters the Vasiliki bay, northeast of the island of Pserimos. It is spotted by a Greek coast guard vessel, with a crew of two, which was patrolling the area. The boat reportedly did not stop after the coastguards’ order. The coastguards fired a total of 20 (!) shots, among which 7 warning shots in the air, and then another 13 times directly at the ship’s engine.

Shortly afterwards, the coast guard immobilised the refugee boat. The toll of the extremely disproportionate use of force by the coast guard is tragic: one Syrian refugee, Belal Tello, has been shot in the head, and another has been seriously shot in the shoulder.

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B.T. - Fatal head injury: Contact “only through the eyes”

Belal is transported by helicopter to Rhodes hospital, while in a coma with severe head injury from the shooting. The rest of the refugees are being transferred to Kalymnos. He goes straight into the hospital’s intensive care unit, is intubated, and over the next few months undergoes at least 7 neurosurgeries. His health condition is critical. Six months later he is discharged from intensive care but breathes by tracheostomy and eats by gastrostomy, remains bedridden, unable to move, unable to speak or communicate with his surroundings – only “able to follow the gaze”. His health condition remains precarious and requires ongoing and daily care from his family and further rehabilitation. Belal’s contact with the environment is therefore “only through the eyes”.

Meanwhile, his wife and their two minor children, then aged 3 and 2, are in Syria. Belal Tello was a refugee who fled the country due to the political situation and the civil war, which put his life in grave danger. For this reason, he intended to apply for international protection in Europe. His family fears that Belal will die, due to the severity of his injury, and they want to come to Greece to see him and take care of him.

The Greek authorities are not facilitating the family to be reunited in Greece. The Greek consulate in Lebanon grants the wife an entry permit for only a few days, while it repeatedly refuses the children’s entry permit (despite interventions by the lawyers). His wife is forced to come to Greece alone and leave her two children with a relative in an extremely precarious environment. She told us today about that period:

“The fact that I could not get papers to come to Greece is what has mostly affected me and my kids. I was obliged to travel alone, without them, for a long time. This traumatised them – they had lost their father, they didn’t know where he was, and after that, they also lost their mother. They didn’t know where I was, they believed that I had left them, and this has affected us a lot. For a long period of time, my son, who was very young, 4 years old, refused to speak to me, thinking that I had left him like his father. He had just seen his father travelling and then gone, and then he saw me travelling and he thought I would leave him too.

If the authorities had given us documents, I would have travelled with my kids, we would be together, help each other. This would have been much easier emotionally and the kids would feel safe, at least with me. But this wasn’t the case, and this has been the hardest period in my life. Also, the kids weren’t able to see their father before he died. In my opinion, the Greek government shot my husband. Their first crime is that they shot my husband, and their second one is that they forbade my children to get papers and I was left alone. 9 years after the case, my daughter still fears losing me.”

Belal is permanently unable to manage his affairs and needs constant protection and 24-hour care, needs that cannot be met by the health system in Greece without the assistance of his family. His situation is a dead end.

After his wife’s request, he is placed under ward of court as he is, of course, permanently unable to manage his affairs, and his brother, EU resident, is appointed as his legal guardian. An application for asylum is made on his behalf through his legal guardian, followed by an application for reunification with his family (Dublin II), who are, in the meantime, in Sweden. As part of the family reunification procedure and through a bureaucratic maze, he is finally transferred to Sweden in an unprecedented and costly transfer procedure, accompanied by a doctor and a nurse. The costs of the provision of free legal assistance at all stages of the procedure as well as of the transfer, are covered by the German PRO ASYL Foundation.

This transfer takes place on 20 August 2015 and Belal is admitted to the Neuro-Rehabilitation Unit at Karolinska University Hospital of Stockholm. According to a medical certificate issued by the hospital on 19 November 2015, he was practically completely unconscious. He remained there until his death a few months later, on 17 December 2015.

M.A. Permanent hand disability

M.A. was in the same boat with his wife and daughter, and was also shot in the shoulder, seriously injuring him. He now has a permanent mobility problem in his arm. We spoke with him again today and he told us about the incident:

“I didn’t expect such a treatment when I escaped the war in Syria towards European territory, which stands for human rights. I was surprised that one person is worth one bullet. This is very shocking for me. I was escaping death and war to seek life. Thus, it was really shocking to realise that what was waiting for me in that sea was only death. This is really sad and it was very cruel from the coast guard to treat people and refugees in such a manner. It was very clear to the coast guard that in the boat, there were only unarmed and helpless people who were just trying to flee the war and find safety somewhere. This was very obvious to them. I was with my wife and my daughter along with others and, unfortunately, we were really shocked when we saw a man just getting shot in his head. His face was full of blood. The unpleasant events happened really fast, they were crazy and terrifying.”

M.A. ‘s wife, N.T., told us from her side:

“Me and my daughter also were in that boat together with my husband. Thus, the incident didn’t affect only him, it has affected the whole family. The situation and the incident was terrible and terrifying. Even after 10 years, it still causes us nightmares.”

About his current state of health, M.A. told us:

“Sometimes, I don’t believe that such a horrible incident happened to me in reality, but it is enough to look at my shoulder to realise that it was very real. This incident didn’t just change my life, I was about to lose my life. For the past ten years I have had a permanent disability in my life. After long consultations and many visits to medical centres, the doctors confirmed to me that I couldn’t put in an artificial joint, since the bullet not only had crushed the bone’s head, but it also destroyed all the muscles that could support and move the bone. So unfortunately, my case is not treatable and I have lost my left-hand movement forever. During winter, I sometimes feel that my left hand is colder than the rest of my body and I don’t feel it at all. In fact, we all know that having two hands is not like having one.

This situation caused by the injury has made me feel helpless, both psychologically and physically and this has massively affected my life. As I cannot move the way I want, I cannot even sleep on my left side, I cannot shower or wear my clothes on my own and I have to rely on someone to help me, which is also difficult for me. Moreover, I cannot swim, drive a bike or exercise! Also, I cannot drive without using a special tool that enables me to control the car, which is also very inconvenient. All of these disabilities are confirmed by official medical reports. Even in these few good moments when I am spending time with my grandchildren, I cannot carry them or play with them the way I want. Unfortunately, this is permanent, not mentioning the way my shoulder looks, which is really disturbing for the people who look at me. This has forced me to always wear long shirts and heavy undershirts to hide my distorted shoulder, to make it look normal. Because in short and to describe it accurately: I have only a half shoulder!”

M.A.was shot in the shoulder. He now has a permanent mobility problem in his arm.

Refugee Support Aegean (RSA), representing M.A., had filed a claim before the competent Administrative Court, on his behalf, for compensation for his permanent injury. At first instance, this claim was rejected. A decision on the appeal lodged is awaited.

Judicial investigation: Case closed in the Greek justice system - Appeal to the ECtHR

“It’s very important for us that we won, because, first of all, this brings justice for me and my kids, but also for my husband who died, Belal, who was shot. Second, this is proof that there has been violence against not only this single person, but against many people. For Belal, we got justice in court, since it found that there had been a violation. A lot of people don’t get justice and this is a sign that something wrong is happening.”

Douaa Alkhatib, then wife of Belal, interviewed by RSA, after the ECtHR ruling

On 23 December 2014, the Piraeus Naval Court prosecutor ordered a preliminary investigation into the possible criminal liability of the port officials involved in the incident. A disciplinary investigation was carried out which, in its finding, concluded that the port officers had no responsibility. Based on that finding, on 30 June 2015, the Naval Court prosecutor announced that no criminal proceedings would be brought against the port officials involved and closed the case. Thus, the case never came to trial before the Greek justice system on this issue.

On 28 December 2015, after the case was closed, Belal Tello’s family filed an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) for violation of ECHR Article 2. On 16 January 2024, ten years after the incident, ECtHR issued its judgement Alkhatib and others v. Greece, No 3566/16, in which it condemned Greece both for violation of the right to life due to Belal’s fatal injury, and for ineffective investigation of the incident on the part of the Greek authorities. The legal representation of the case has been undertaken by lawyers on behalf of Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) and the PRO ASYL Foundation.

With regard to the violation of the right to life (Article 2 ECHR), the judgement includes:

  • The “extremely dangerous” and “clearly disproportionate” use of force, with 13 shots fired directly at the boat’s engine. The Court finds that this use of force was “potentially lethal” as it ultimately led to Belal’s death.
  • The lack of establishing clear rules on the use of weapons in Coast Guard operations, as port officials cited the confidential, relatively old and inadequate “rules of engagement” of 1992 for the use of weapons against the refugee boat. At the same time, not only was the 2004 Regulation on the permitted use of force by the Coast Guard not used (Decision 1141.1/04/2004, Ratification of the Regulation on the possession, carrying and use of weapons by Coast Guard personnel, Government Gazette 663/B/ 07.05.2004), but also the port officers, through their statements, appeared not even to be aware of this Regulation, let alone to act on the basis of it. As a result, the Court held that the requirement of a legal framework providing adequate and effective safeguards against arbitrariness and the use of force, necessary for a democratic society, was not met.
  • The lack of adequate planning and preparation for this particular operation by the Coast Guard, which includes the fact that the port officers did not verify beyond reasonable doubt and “in spite of very strong evidence” of the contrary, that there were no passengers on the refugee boat before shooting at its engine and did not act so as to minimise the use of lethal force and the possible risks to the lives of the passengers.

With regard to the ineffective investigation of the incident on the part of the Greek authorities, the Court’s judgement includes the following:

  • The case was closed in the Greek justice system, while the Court found that the prosecutor “had not sufficiently substantiated” his conclusion, since it could not be considered that it resulted from a thorough investigation of the incident.
  • The testimonies of the 10 witnesses, also refugees, were identical, including “practically stereotyped responses”. Moreover, the two injured refugees or their relatives were never called to testify.
  • Various measures for an effective and in-depth investigation had never been ordered, such as a forensic medical report on Belal’s injury, a ballistic report determining the trajectories of the shots, including the one which had hit Belal, a detailed expert report on both vessels shedding light on whether there was  a real and imminent danger for the coast guard crew.
  • The Piraeus Naval Court prosecutor did not take into account the Rhodes Assize Court’s judgement of 15 May 2015, which had acquitted th pilot of the motorboat of the charges of attempting to cause a shipwreck and endangering human life, exposing other persons to a risk to their life and serious bodily injury.

On the basis of the above, the Court concluded that “the investigation carried out by the national authorities contained numerous shortcomings which had resulted, among other failings, in the loss of evidence, and which had rendered the investigation inadequate”.

The Court, in a judgement that came after a significant delay of ten years, held that Greece was to pay €80,000  Belal Tello’s family in respect of non-pecuniary damage.

Belal’s then-wife, Douaa Alkhatib, who had filed the appeal, told us after the decision:

“It’s really important for our kids to know what happened to their father and what was the problem, who were the guilty ones. This is some compensation for what they lost. Of course, this doesn’t  fully compensate us. This decision doesn’t bring their father back, but at least now they know what happened. We proved that the investigation by the authorities was inadequate, and that they had simply made up stories about Belal.”

After the ECtHR decision, M.A., who is still awaiting the Court of Appeal’s decision on his compensation, told us:

“Although the decision of the court brought some justice to the other family, let’s agree that unfortunately nothing can compensate for life. Belal sadly left behind his little kids, and a broken family. The amount of the compensation was very small and it doesn’t really replace the fact that a person’s life was wasted. I hope at least that they will also be fair to me. I hope that, at least, the person who took this reckless decision and shot those bullets, will be fairly punished because he negatively impacted my life for good and he made me suffer all this time for nothing. We didn’t do anything to these people to receive such a cruel response. So we hope that the punishment will be fair.”

How many “isolated incidents” constitute a systemic problem?

Undoubtedly, this story reflects an extremely tragic case, which led to Belal Tello’s death and M.A.’s serious injury. It also led to unbearable burden for Belal’s family, both while their beloved one was in Greece in a comatose state for a year, and of course after his death which occurred due to his initial injury. The family’s deep trauma was not only not supported by the Greek authorities, who bore full responsibility for Belal’s fatal injury, but was instead burdened by a bureaucratic maze and constant problems at every step, including even the family’s arrival in Greece.

However, at the same time, this story is unfortunately by no means “a tragic, isolated incident”. In many of its aspects, it confirms a dangerous pattern on the part of the Greek authorities, leading to violations of fundamental rights and, in many cases, to death. This case demonstrates once again the arbitrary practices and documented systemic deficiencies in the planning and implementation of the Coast Guard operations during the irregular entry of refugees into Greek territory, resulting in failing to ensure the safety of the transferred persons on board as a priority during all stages of maritime operations. Moreover, this case further demonstrates the lack of effective and in-depth investigation of human rights violations at sea by judicial authorities and the ineffectiveness of available domestic remedies regarding violations specifically of Articles 2 and 3 of the ECHR (see in more detail the third party intervention by ECCHR, PRO ASYL & RSA in 2022 and the annual report of civil society organisations on the rule of law in Greece in 2023).

This particular case never made it to trial in the Greek courts – it was closed by the Piraeus Naval Court prosecutor. At the same time, according to the ECtHR ruling, a number of crucial pieces of evidence were not collected at all or were insufficiently collected, while people’s testimonies were presented identical or were not taken at all. A number of other cases show similar patterns.

The most emblematic of such cases was that of the shipwreck in Farmakonisi, which took place on 20 January 2014, and for which Greece was also condemned by the ECtHR, in its judgement of 7 July 2022 (Safi v. Greece). The shipwreck occurred during a Greek Coast Guard operation, an effort of a pushback according to the survivors, which led to the death of 11 people (8 children and 3 women), including the survivors’ wives and children, all refugees from Afghanistan. In Greece, the judicial investigation of the case was also very quickly closed. The ECtHR condemnation was again about the violation of Article 2 of the ECHR (right to life), as well as Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment). This is yet another case where the Court includes in its judgement the lack of a thorough and effective investigation by the Greek authorities.

Following this particular Court decision on the incident in Farmakonisi and its execution, the Council of Europe has received strong calls to scrutinise structural deficiencies in Greek Coast Guard operations and criminal investigations. But this case, although emblematic, is by no means the only one. Over the past decade, Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) and PRO ASYL have represented refugees who have complained of similar serious human rights violations in the context of Coast Guard operations, including informal forced return operations (pushbacks). Aside this judgement on Pserimos, three of such cases are still pending before the ECtHR: Almukhlas v. Greece (Symi case), Alnassar v. Greece (Rhodes case) and F.M. v. Greece (Agathonisi case).

Last September, Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) and PRO ASYL submitted an analysis to the Council of Europe, in the context of its supervision of the execution of the Safi v. Greece judgement, based on an indicative list of cases we represent. These cases concern human rights breaches stemming from deficiencies and delays in rescue operations, interception operations during attempted push backs, treatment of shipwreck survivors and non-registration of missing persons.

In fact, there are thousands of appeals and hundreds of Greece’s convictions at the European Court of Human Rights for violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. In the total number of ECtHR judgments for Greece up to January 2023, as shown in the Court’s report “ECHR and Greece: Facts and Figures”, 969 judgments out of the 1,082 cases ultimately heard by the Court were convicting Greece, finding at least one human rights violation under the European Convention on Human Rights. Of these judgments, over 10% refers to violations of: ECHR Articles 2 (protection of the right to life) at 0.98% and art.3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) at 9.70%.

At the Greek borders, people’s lives are at risk as a consequence of systematic deterrence practices, of the absence of legal and safe pathways for those who want to apply for asylum and of ongoing human rights violations. These are practices that must be ended by giving absolute priority to the protection of human life.

In the Pserimos case, Belal Tello, one of the injured, was eventually led to his death as a result of the brutal and illegal operation of the Greek coast guard, and his family suffered the tragic loss of their loved one, while M.A., the other injured man, now lives with permanent hand mobility problems. Belal’s family found some justice by the ECtHR. This does not of course make up for death and trauma, but it does give a message of justice, even belated. Such justice should be a component of a Rule of Law in accordance with the values of democracy and fundamental rights.