Young Afghans on trial over fire at Greek migrant camp

·3-min read
The Moria camp was home to more than 10,000 people before it was destroyed by two fires in September 2020.

Four young Afghan asylum-seekers went on trial in Greece on Friday accused of starting the devastating fires that burnt down Europe's largest migrant camp last year.

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

The four Afghans, who are on trial on the neighbouring island of Chios, are charged with intentional arson leading to a risk to human life and membership of a criminal group.

A legal source told AFP the four could face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty on both charges.

No media were allowed inside the courtroom owing to coronavirus precautions.

The defendants arrived in court around 9.30 am (0630 GMT), escorted by policemen and handcuffed in pairs.

Two other Afghan youths were jailed in a correctional facility near Athens for five years over the same case in March.

Defence lawyers for the Afghans appearing Friday have argued their clients have not been granted a fair trial.

They say three of them had documents showing they were under 18 at the time of arrest, but were not recognised as minors by the Greek state.

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

According to the defence lawyers, the witness was not in court Friday and did not appear for the trial last 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 long-persecuted minority in Afghanistan.

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

Built in 2013 to house a maximum of 3,000 people, the Moria camp became badly overcrowded in 2015 as a huge wave of people began arriving on the Greek islands 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 last year as tensions soared in the camp over the coronavirus pandemic.

Witnesses told AFP a dispute had broken out as some 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 is hosting 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 near Turkey, the vast majority of them hoping to settle elsewhere in the EU.

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