An appeals court in Greece has ordered the release of a Somali migrant who had been sentenced to life in prison for people smuggling, in a case that has drawn international attention to draconian border protection laws in the European Union country. Mohammad Hanad Abdi was sentenced to 142 years in prison in 2021 after being convicted following a deadly crossing in a dinghy from Turkey to the nearby Greek island of Lesbos the previous year. At an appeal Monday on the Greek island of Lesbos, his sentence was reduced to 8 years and an appeals court judge ordered his release, recognizing time served and good behavior. The trial was attended by several members of the European Parliament who had argued that Abdi, a 29-year-old father of four, had been wrongfully convicted. “We are all in tears with relief. It was a very difficult day. The state prosecutor took a tough line and wanted to uphold the sentence,″ EU lawmaker Stelios Kouloglou, who led the campaign and attended the trial, told The Associated Press. ″It’s a very important decision because many ordinary migrants are being treated like smugglers,″ he said. “Mohammad will be out in several days when his papers are processed … the next step for us is to campaign for the law to change.″ Abdi told the court he had only steered the dinghy after it had been abandoned by a Turkish smuggler during the 2020 crossing to Lesbos from the nearby Turkish mainland.
Two people drowned when the vessel took on water while 33 others were rescued. Many of the survivors backed the Somali man’s account of events, according to Abdi’s lawyers.
The case has brought attention to harsh sentencing guidelines in Greece introduced in recent years as part of an effort to fight illegal migration into the European Union.
Kouloglou, a member of a left-wing political group at the EU parliament, said he believed several thousand more migrants currently in Greek prisons have also been wrongfully convicted.
There was no immediate response from Greece’s center-right government which has described its migration policy as “strict but fair,” arguing that tough sentencing for smugglers is a key part of the country’s border defense policy. The campaign to support jailed migrants has won support from human rights groups and leading Greek performing artists who have helped raise money for legal fees.
Last month, two Afghan men, Akif Razouli and Amir Zahiri, who had received 50-year jail sentences, were released from prison on appeal. Razouli was cleared while Zahiri was released after his sentence was also reduced to eight years.
Fifteen European Parliament members have backed his campaign, signing letters of complaint to Greek authorities.