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Greek court acquits Spanish firemen accused of people smuggling

The three men from Seville had been charged after trying to save refugees from drowning at sea

Accused firemen (l-r) Manuel Blanco, Julio Latorre and José Enrique Rodríguez.
Accused firemen (l-r) Manuel Blanco, Julio Latorre and José Enrique Rodríguez. EFE

A court on the Greek island of Lesbos has acquitted three Spanish firemen accused of “attempting to smuggle people” into the European Union for their efforts to rescue migrants at sea. The firemen from Seville – Manuel Blanco, 47, Quique Rodríguez, 32, and Julio Latorre, 34 – faced up to 10 years in prison if found guilty.

“Manuel Blanco, Julio Latorre and Quique Rodríguez were arrested during a mission to rescue refugees. We send them our unconditional support.”

Proem-Aid (Professional Emergency Aid), the association founded by the Spaniards in November aimed at saving refugees from drowning at sea, said the acquittal was an act of “justice” and a “recognition of humanitarian aid, which is being criminalized.”

“Justice has been served!” Proem-Aid wrote in a message on Twitter. The association, which is made up of professionally trained volunteers who can work in extreme conditions, claimed the verdict was “a great victory for humanitarian aid.” “We will return to save lives,” it promised.

On the night of January 14, 2016, the three firemen were aboard a Danish vessel that went out to assist a boat that had reportedly capsized a few miles off the coast. The rescuers did not find the migrant boat, but on the way back they were intercepted by the Greek Coast Guard and accused of attempting to smuggle people into Greece.

Paradoxically, their activities continued after they were charged. And what’s even more striking, the ensuing rescue operations were conducted in partnership with, and with the approval of, the Greek authorities, who even gave the Spaniards a designated area to work in. The rescuers were also in constant touch with the Spanish consulate, as email exchanges provided by Blanco show.

The Spaniards’ lawyer Haris Petsikos described the charge as “very vague and imprecise” and  “vehemently” defended the firemen during the trial. According to those present, the judge and prosecutor were “pedantic.”

Protester supporting firemen holds sign with the message “saving lives is not a crime.”
Protester supporting firemen holds sign with the message “saving lives is not a crime.”

The Spanish volunteers told the court they had been working with the express support of Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido, Foreign Affairs Minister Alfonso Dastis and the premier of Andalusia, Susana Díaz.

Blanco, the first of the accused to take the stand, testified that the group always contacted the Greek Coast Guard before providing assistance in accordance with norms and regulations. His colleague Latorre explained they had only come to Greece save lives, and added that he had made the trip during his work holidays. Rosa Aguilar, a counselor for the justice and interior ministry of the Andalusian regional government, also testified to the professionalism of the firemen and highlighted that thousands of lives had been saved thanks to the work of Proem-Aid.

After celebrating the court’s decision, the firemen announced they wanted to come back to save refugees who “continue to drown in the Mediterranean.”

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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