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Greek court orders nine smuggling suspects held pending trial over migrant ship disaster

ATHENS, GREECE (AP) – Nine men suspected of crewing a migrant smuggling ship that sank off Greece leaving more than 500 missing were ordered held in pretrial custody on Tuesday, as new accounts emerged on the sinking and the appalling conditions on the trip from Libya towards Italy.

The Egyptian suspects face charges that include participation in a criminal organisation, manslaughter and causing a shipwreck. A court in Greece’s southern city of Kalamata ordered their detention after questioning them for hours.

Only 104 men and youth – Egyptians, Pakistanis, Syrians and Palestinians – survived one of the worst migrant shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea early on June 14; 82 bodies have been recovered, the last late on Tuesday as a large search continued for a seventh day.

Survivors said women and children were trapped in the hold as the ship capsized and sank within minutes to one of the deepest spots in the Mediterranean.

Survivor accounts emerged on Tuesday confirming that about 750 people paid thousands of dollars each for a berth on the battered blue fishing trawler, seeking a better life in Europe.

Migrants from Eritrea, Libya and Sudan crowd the deck of a wooden boat. PHOTO: AP

In sworn testimonies over the weekend, and seen by The Associated Press, survivors described shocking conditions on the five-day journey. Most of the passengers were denied food and water, and those who couldn’t bribe the crew to get out of the hold were beaten if they tried to reach deck level.

The testimonies also echoed previous accounts that the steel-hulled trawler sank in calm seas during a botched attempt to tow it. This clashes with the Greek coast guard’s insistence that neither its patrol boat that escorted the trawler in its last hours nor any other vessel attached a tow rope.

“The Greek ship cast a rope and it was tied to our bows,” survivor Abdul Rahman Alhaz said in his sworn testimony. “We shouted ‘stop, stop!’ because our boat was listing. (It) was in bad shape and overloaded, and shouldn’t have been towed.”

A 24-year-old Palestinian from Syria Alhaz said he paid USD4,000 to board the ship at Tobruk in eastern Libya. He said the “people in charge” on the trawler were all Egyptians, and recognized seven suspects from pictures Greek authorities showed him.

Lawyer Athanassios Iliopoulos, representing a 22-year-old Egyptian alleged smuggler, told The AP that all nine suspects denied the charges in court and claimed to be migrants themselves. Iliopoulos said his client said he sold his truck and borrowed from his parents to raise EUR4,500 for his fare.