11 May 2019
The charges were brought last year, after a peaceful sit-in of approximately 180 refugees took place in a small part of Sappho Square in the centre of Mytilene, Lesvos, between April 17- 23, 2018, in protest against poor living conditions in Moria Camp, lack of medical care and access to health services, imprisonment on the island and the long delay in their asylum process. The trigger of the mobilisation was the hospitalisation and death of an Afghan asylum seeker with serious health problems.
What fundamentally differentiated this peaceful demonstration from previous demonstrations by refugees in Sappho Square was the unprecedented organised violent assault against the protestors by far-right elements with fascist and racist motives from the afternoon of 22 April up to 4 a.m. the following day, 23 April.
While the police initially made efforts to protect the protestors during the attack, as is their duty, and formed a protective ring around them so as not to come in direct contact with the attacking mob, they did not manage to protect them from the continuous throwing of stones, glasses, flaming objects, tiles, and bottles; which resulted in many injuries to the demonstrators and those standing in solidarity with them.
Throughout the night, the police did not arrest any of the attackers, as one might expect. Instead, in the early morning when the situation was seemingly calm, the police continued the assault against the demonstrators and carried out a swift and violent evacuation of the Square, using tear gas and riot gear to forcibly encircle the demonstrators. The fearful and panicked demonstrators, including many mothers and young children, were arrested and led to the police vans without any prior warning, making it self evident in the trial that no rioting or resistance during the operation of the evacuation could have taken place.
For all the above reasons, the acquittal on all charges of all the accused is important, as was the recognition by the court that the constitutionally guaranteed right to peaceful demonstration superseded the alleged crime of illegal occupation of public property.
It was evident throughout the trial, through the testimony of the witnesses and defendants, that what was at issue was not that the public square was partially occupied, perhaps at the inconvenience of some individuals - but that the state was attempting to criminalize the constitutionally and legally exercised right to freedom of assembly. They did so with such tactics as disassociation of this trial from the unprecedented fascist and violent assault on the migrants, and by proceeding to trial in a case that lacked evidence of any crime being committed. Like many similar cases of criminalization of migrants in Lesvos, this case never should have gone to trial.
Legal Center Lesvos represented eight of the defendants, and appeared as a witness in the trial, having monitored the peaceful protest and the violent attack and arrest on the night of 22-23 April. The Legal Centre joined HIAS Greece, who represented 33 defendants at trial. We welcome this outcome, as it is the only logical outcome if the rule of law and the rights of individuals to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are upheld.
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