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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Maria: the (actual) current situation

Giorgos Christides has responded to the latest efforts to smear him, and promote the Greek government’s (at best absolutely unproven) claims about Maria, a five-year-old girl who died on an Evros islet last summer.

We use the opportunity here to set out the actual – rather than the Greek government’s version of the – situation as far as it is presently known. We note also that the only lies so far known to have been told have been told not by NGOs, refugees or humanitarians, but the Greek government.

The journalist and translator Giorgos Christides has finally responded to the ongoing efforts by the Greek state to smear him and the family of Maria, a five-year-old Syrian girl who was killed on an Evros islet on Tuesday 9 August 2022.

As we have noted many times (most recently here), Maria was part of a group which had been pushed back from Greece at least twice and before she died at least three others, including one man and two boys, had drowned in the river.

In the run-up to her death, the Greek government continually claimed not to know where she and her group (of 38 people) were, despite several aid organisations, Christides, and latterly several media organisations, as well as the European Court of Human Rights, not only knowing, and not only repeatedly sharing the information with the Greek police and Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis, but publishing on their (the police and Mitarachis’) social media accounts and sending direct messages to them containing, the precise coordinates of the islet.

When it became impossible for the government to pretend any longer that it ‘did not know’ where they were, it changed its story to claim that they were not there. When this, too, became laughably clearly a lie, it argued that the islet belonged to the Turkish government, and that this meant it could not carry out a rescue.

Not only was the latter part of that claim untrue – the law is clear that any state can carry out a rescue in any other country if it is clear that the government of that country is unable or unwilling to do so itself – it was later revealed that the former was also a lie. The islet is not Turkish, but is ‘shared’ by the Greek and Turkish governments. The Greek government and its uniformed officers could have entered at any time, without even needing to rely on international law.

In the aftermath of her death, the 38 survivors reached the Greek mainland and were taken to Fylakia detention centre, to which Mitarachis, who just days earlier had said they did not exist, travelled to for some reason sit in on their police interviews. He then stood in front of TV cameras and shared the contents of those interviews, which is at the absolute best an abuse of his power, if not an abuse of the law, as a criminal investigation was supposedly already underway into the treatment of Maria and her group, and the circumstances leading to her death.

In the genuinely scarcely believable months which have followed, Mitarachis and the Greek Prime Minister Kiriakos Mitsotakis have told the media and Greek parliament – and since then also the EU and wider world (including the BBC’s politics show Hardtalk) – that Maria never existed: all of which statements were made while an investigation was underway and with absolutely zero findings announced by it, and have attacked the two main aid organisations which have worked with the survivors, HumanRights360 (which has been effectively destroyed by the government’s ceaseless harrying of it and its director Epaminondas Farmakis’ terrible and terribly-advised ‘apology and admission’ which Mitarachis in particular ha since cited as evidence of things the statement did not even address, and the Greek Council for Refugees.

They have also fed lines to the media in the pretence (based on a manicure one woman seemingly had, and the fact that she has once been to Germany) that the group were in some way not ‘genuine asylum seekers’ and have been working, according to the survivors’ lawyer Evgenia Kouniaki, to force them to change their statements (Friday 10 February 2023 Maria and Evros: a brief update), and have continually claimed that ‘one person’ has said Maria did not exist: not only a far from reliable source (especially not compared with the 37 who do not say so and bearing in mind the pressure placed on the survivors to say what is most convenient for the Greek government) but also yet another abuse of the law: one cannot reveal the content of people’s statements to the police before an investigation has been held.

In the latest attack on Greek law, common human decency, the survivors of the summer ordeal and the memory of a five-year-old girl, Andreas Drymiotis, not even a journalist but a ‘business consultant’, was for some reason deemed acceptable by Kathimerini – supposedly one of Greece’s more sensible newspapers – to pontificate on the circumstances of Maria’s death or, as he preferred to put it, a ‘sting’ in which a group of conniving refugees chose to undergo at least two pushbacks and the death of at least three of their number in order to fake the death of a non-existent five-year-old girl in order to in some way attack ‘Greece’, an entire country, for reasons he leaves far from clear.

First of all, we should note that there is no real need for them to have done this. There have been absolutely thousands of witness and victim testimonies of people being beaten, robbed, sexually assaulted, pushed back and in some cases killed by the Greek government and its uniformed operatives at Evros and the Aegean Sea.

There is simply no doubt that this is happening, that it is happening so often that it is not even simply a ‘regular event’ but a policy, and that the policy was developed and put into operation by Nea Dimokratia which has an extremely long and shameful history of precisely this behaviour.

Second, what would they actually have got out of it? How could making this claim possibly have benefitted them?

And third, we should note that expecting another dead person – even a dead five-year-old girl – was somehow likely to deliver a blow to the Greek government (not ‘Greece’ – Nea Dimokratia is not Greece, and Greece certainly is not Nea Dimokratia) would have been extraordinarily naïve for such a – in Drymiotis’ imagination – dedicated and cynical gang.

If the deaths so far, and the tens of thousands of assaults, robberies and beatings of refugees has not done that, why would one more dead girl? And we apologise for putting it in this language, but that genuinely is the way Mitarachis, Mitsotakis and their fellows appear to regard this.

What one would expect the Greek government to do is precisely what it has done (and has done in many other instances): lie. Lie about the people, lie about the islet, lie about Maria’s existence, lies about the survivors, and take those lies all over the world, while pressuring the survivors to change their statements in their – Mitarachis’ and Mitsotakis’ – favour, even as they work to prejudice the upcoming investigation into what happened, abusing their position and attacking the Greek legal system by so doing.

There is a philosophical tenet (we are, by the way, imitating Drymiotis’ style here) called Occam’s Razor, which means that the simplest answer to a question – or at least the one which requires the fewest ‘explanatory notes’ – is likely to be the correct one.

But not according to Drymiotis. This business consultant chooses instead to rehash every single attack piece run against the 38 people – and against a dead five-year-old girl – in order to claim evidence of a ‘sting’ against ‘Greece’ and to abuse all those ‘involved’ from ‘well-meaning but naïve’ NGOs, to the people on the islet, and of course including the journalists who also did their job, by reporting what was happening, as it happened.

Drymiotis, whether because he could not think of anything else to write or because he was specifically asked to, carried out a hatchet job, in favour of the government and against those it opposes, who by now include NGOs, journalists, refugees and a five-year-old girl whose very existence has now become so important to what remains of its reputation that it is denied.

Thankfully, because there have genuinely been times where we have felt like the only people pointing out that literally every single lie so far proven to have been told about Maria’s death has been told by members of the Greek government, Christides has been sufficiently provoked by this latest effort to mislead the Greek public to save Nea Dimokratia that he has responded.

Kathimerini itself gave him room to respond (which is perhaps a mark of the fact that the newspaper itself knew the legal and professional risks it had taken by publishing Drymiotis’ claims to begin with) and he did so.

He said:

Many monstrous lies have been written about the case of the refugees on the island of Kissari last summer. For a long time I avoided public interventions. The journalistic investigation was ongoing, as was the judicial one, while due to the toxicity - especially on social media - I felt that any intervention would be counterproductive. My current engagement with the article by Mr. Drymiotis, which was hosted by "K" on the issue of 2/26, is probably also a waste of time. One libel above ("plagiarism", "fabricated report", "he knew it was a fairy tale", writes the columnist without any argument or proof) one below, what does it matter?

The answer is that it would not have, if the libel was not indicative of the evil demon of Greek journalism and literature. Especially when it finds a way out in a newspaper of known validity like "K". I will not dwell so much on the errors in the article, mainly because of their number and degree of stupidity. A rudimentary fact-checking would probably only salvage links and intents. e.g., "[the signatory] first raised the issue", writes Mr. Drymiotis (while it was raised first by the Greek press), who indulges in a flurry of conspiracy theories (one Syrian "was not a refugee...but lived in Germany"), which he apparently fished out of Twitter and are based, among other things, on Instagram or the manicure of one of the refugees.

Due to space, it is impossible to refer in detail to the case as such. But in short: In July of last year, while I was on vacation, I was informed that the European Court of Human Rights had ordered the rescue of the refugees in question in Greece. With other colleagues and lawyers we were in systematic communication with them. For quite some time, despite the amount of evidence in their possession, the Greek authorities claimed that they "couldn't find them" on the island. Then the argument was made that the islet was "Turkish" anyway and any rescue operation could lead to a hot episode. All this long before the allegations of the girl's death and before the undersigned sent any report for publication.

What was finally proven and systematically omitted? That the refugees also existed, and were on the island, and the authorities knew it, and the rescue could have been done according to the orders of the Court before any death complaint, while the "Turkish island" was not "Turkish" after all, but divided - and primarily Greek. This last one in particular - the verbal and not only concession of territory to Turkey by ministerial and other lips - surprisingly did not touch the chords of professional patriots in the media and ministerial / parliamentary seats.

As for the girl. Spiegel, like many other authoritative international media (Le Monde, Al Jazeera, Channel 4, etc.), recorded the refugees' complaints about her death. In Spiegel's report, as the magazine itself publicly acknowledged, the usual and self-explanatory caveat that the death occurred "according to the testimonies of the refugees" was mistakenly omitted when editing the response. The complaints about the child's death were, however, real and named. They were also reported to the public prosecutor after their rescue by the Greek authorities. They were even initially received by Mr. Mitarachis, who sympathized with them. Based on these named testimonies, the parents, and those members of the group who remained in Greece, were already granted asylum by the Greek authorities, who considered their testimonies highly reliable.

Months after the events, "K" published a report questioning the girl's death. The report is based on an anonymous testimony of a member of the refugee group. Of course this – a front page report based on anonymous testimony months after the events – is perfectly legitimate. I suppose it was equally legitimate, indeed necessary, for a foreign or domestic media to publish named testimonies, at the time of the events, and especially when human lives were at stake.

Besides, if the domestic press (barring exceptions) did its job, it would have known (and added to the body of evidence) that human rights abuses at the border have been documented for the most part and would not have pretended to fall from the clouds for the suffering it suffered. the group of refugees from the Greek and Turkish authorities. These violations have been documented both by Spiegel and countless other foreign media and international organizations (from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, to Le Monde, Politico, the Guardian, the UN, Amnesty International). Violations confirmed by the European authorities (OLAF), and led to the resignation of the head of Frontex. Practices that recently made the Human Rights Officer of Frontex recommend the withdrawal of the organization from Greece.

But these do not concern the domestic defenders of power, who instead of investigating and holding the authorities to account, prefer character assassination, attacking a Syrian family and serving the overt (and admittedly successful) strategy of silencing any remaining voice in defence of the European acquis, humanity, culture and justice in our country.

To which we will add only this.

There is an investigation pending into what happened last summer. The continued public statements and claims of Notis Mitarachis and Kiriakos Mitsotakis have already undermined that investigation – and have done so quite deliberately.

The claim that Maria never existed has been the most recent and most repeated of Nea Dimokratia’s claims, and we believe it to be a lie because so far, the only lies proven to have been told – that the entire group did not exist, that they could not be found, that they were on a Turkish islet, that this meant they could not be rescued – were all told not by the refugees, and not by those reporting on the situation as it happened, but by the Greek government.

But in the end, we must remember that Maria’s was one death among hundreds, all caused by the Nea Dimokratia administration which has acted at all times entirely in keeping with its own history and shameful record of racism, nationalism and bigotry.

Maria almost certainly existed. So did everyone else who has been beaten, robbed, sexually assaulted, pushed back and killed by Nea Dimokratia.

We should not lose sight of either of those things, however many time the party’s members repeat their lies.


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