Authorities arrest 11 suspects allegedly involved in trafficking Greece shipwreck victims

Published June 18, 2023
Pakistani Adil Hussain, who says his brother Matloob, 43, was onboard a boat with migrants that capsized at open sea off Greece, shows a photo of his brother that is missing in front of a migrant camp in Malakasa, near Athens, Greece, June 16, 2023.—Reuters/file
Pakistani Adil Hussain, who says his brother Matloob, 43, was onboard a boat with migrants that capsized at open sea off Greece, shows a photo of his brother that is missing in front of a migrant camp in Malakasa, near Athens, Greece, June 16, 2023.—Reuters/file

Pakistani authorities arrested on Sunday 11 suspects allegedly involved in the smuggling of people to Europe via the Middle East and Africa, including those who died in the recent Greece boat tragedy.

On Wednesday, an overloaded boat — with around 750 people on board according to a European rescue support charity — sank in open seas off Greece. Many Pakistanis are feared dead although the exact number has not yet been officially confirmed.

The Foreign Office said on Saturday that 12 Pakistanis had been found alive as National Assembly Speaker Raja Pervaiz Ashraf urged the government to “immediately investigate” the incident.

Earlier today, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif formed a four-member committee to probe the facts of the shipwreck and directed law enforcement agencies (LEAs) to trace those involved in human smuggling.

Talking to Dawn.com, Kotli Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Muhammad Riaz Mughal confirmed that 21 people from Azad Jammu and Kashmir were aboard the ship and were missing.

He said 19 of these people belonged to Khuiratta and the remaining hailed from neighbouring Charhoi.

SSP Mughal revealed that as many as 10 “sub-agents” were arrested in AJK during the last 24 hours.

“The arrests were made after the police chalked out an effective strategy in the light of the information shared by the families of the victims about the persons who had trapped the victims into landing them in Europe against millions of rupees,” he told Dawn.com.

Mughal said the suspects were booked under sections 418 (cheating with the knowledge that wrongful loss may ensue to a person whose interest offender is bound to protect), 419 (punishment for cheating by personation), 420 (cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property), and 322 (punishment for murder) of the Pakistan Penal Code.

“They were sub-agents or agents of main human traffickers Chaudhry Zulqarnain, Talat Kiani, and Khalid Mirza, who belong to Kotli and Mirpur and are based in Libya.

“During the preliminary interrogation, the suspects made harrowing disclosures about how and for whom they operated and who else was involved in the ghastly business,” SSP Mughal said.

He further said that the suspects charged Rs2.5 to Rs3 million from each person, and would fly them legally first to the UAE and then to Egypt and Libya. “From Libya, the illegal voyage started through the Mediterranean Sea.”

“We are on the lookout for some other suspects as well,” SSP Mughal said, adding that the arrested persons would be produced before a judicial magistrate on Monday for physical remand.

Separately, a statement issued by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) said that a “trafficking agent” involved in trapping victims killed in the Greece boat tragedy was arrested in a major operation by the Anti-Human Trafficking Circle Gujrat.

It said he was arrested upon identification by a victim’s family and a case was registered against him while further investigation was underway.

The FIA added that the suspect received money, Rs0.23 million each from different people, to send the victims to Europe and hailed from Wazirabad.

PM constitutes inquiry committee

In a statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office today, a copy of which is available with Dawn.com, the premier expressed grief at the incident and formed an inquiry committee to probe the matter.

Headed by National Police Bureau Director General Ehsan Sadiq, the committee comprises Ministry of Foreign Affairs Additional Secretary (Africa) Javed Ahmed Umrani, Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) DIG Sardar Zaheer Ahmad and FIA Joint Secretary Faisal Nisar.

According to the PMO statement, the terms of reference (TORs) of the committee include ascertaining the facts of the Greece boat tragedy, identifying loopholes and lapses in the legal/enforcement mechanism in Pakistan that “exposed precious human lives to the vagaries of human trafficking”, and analysing similar incidents in the past.

The committee would also take stock of the existing legal framework, enforcement measures in the country and international coordination to prevent, control and punish human smuggling.

Furthermore, it has been told to prepare short and long-term recommendations to apprehend facilitators, agents, masterminds, and rackets and eradicate the menace of human trafficking.

The committee shall submit its report within a week and can seek support from the Interior Division, the statement added.

Separately, in another statement released in the morning, the PMO said that PM Shehbaz directed LEAs to track down “agents” involved in human trafficking and called for bringing them to justice.

Further, on the instructions of the premier, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) had appointed DIG Alam Shinwari as the focal person to facilitate information regarding those who lost their lives in the incident and the injured.

The PMO handout said that the Azad Jammu and Kashmir chief secretary had also appointed a focal person to contact the Pakistani embassy in Greece and authorities in this regard, and for facilitating the injured and the deceased’s relatives.

PM Shehbaz also directed the FO to “immediately take action” on the boat capsizing and the reports of possible Pakistanis being among the victims.

Furthermore, the premier ordered Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah to submit details via his ministry and submit a report after conducting an investigation into the matter.

“Best efforts should be made for all Pakistanis. I will not tolerate any laziness and incompetence,” the handout quoted the prime minister.

He also ordered for a help desk to be immediately established for the families of those affected by the incident so that they are “alerted with all details”.

The PMO statement further stated Shehbaz “strictly” directed Pakistani ambassadors in Greece and Egypt to “take emergency measures”.

PM Shehbaz expressed deep grief and sorrow at the Pakistani lives lost in the boat tragedy and instructed the embassy in Greece to look after the 12 citizens rescued.

The premier also said that June 19 (Monday) would be observed as the “Day of Mourning” across the country and the national flag would fly at half-mast.

FIA seeks information on perpetrators

A day earlier, the FIA had appealed to those having “information pertaining to the perpetrators and facilitators (agents/human traffickers)” involved in the incident to inform the agency and share the information with them.

In a tweet, it had said, “Any citizen having information pertaining to the perpetrators and facilitators (agents/human traffickers) of the horrific boat capsizing incident in Greece — including information about anyone who may have any involvement in sending abroad one or more of the victims of the said incident — […] are requested to share the information with the following officers of FIA Islamabad (ICT, Rawalpindi Division, Gujrat and Lahore).”

The FIA shared contact numbers and names of the officials at the said FIA offices along with their posts, as well as each branch’s email addresses.

“The names of citizens sharing the information will be kept strictly confidential,” it assured the citizens.

Pakistanis ‘forced below deck’

Meanwhile, The Guardian quoted survivors’ leaked testimonies claiming that “Pakistanis were forced below deck, with other nationalities allowed on the top deck where they had a far greater chance of surviving the capsize”.

It also said that “new accounts from survivors indicate that women and children were forced to travel in the hold” — a large compartment or space in the lower part of a ship — as well as that “certain nationalities were condemned to the most dangerous part of the trawler”.

The Guardian cited The Observer, its sister paper, as having “learned that Pakistani nationals were also kept below deck, with crew members maltreating them when they appeared in search of fresh water or tried to escape”.

A undated handout photo provided by the Hellenic Coast Guard shows migrants onboard a boat during a rescue operation, before their boat capsized at open sea, off Greece. — Reuters
A undated handout photo provided by the Hellenic Coast Guard shows migrants onboard a boat during a rescue operation, before their boat capsized at open sea, off Greece. — Reuters

The report also cited claims that the vessel overturned in the early hours of Wednesday “because a rope was attached by coastguards”. However, these allegations were rejected by Greek officials.

It stated that the coastguard had said that it had kept a “discreet distance” from the boat. “But on Friday, a government spokesperson confirmed a rope had been thrown to stabilise the boat,” The Guardian said.

It quoted Maurice Stierl, of the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies at Osnabrück University in Germany, as saying: “The Hellenic coastguard speaks of a sudden shift in weight. So what caused the sudden shift in weight? Was there a panic on board? Did something happen during the attempt to provide them with something? Or was it towed? And due to this towing, did the boat go down?”

Furthermore, The Guardian said there were also questions over whether the Greek coastguard should have intervened to “escort the ageing trawler to safety”.

In the report, Stierl accused many EU countries of “weaponising time” by delaying rescue as long as they could. “They have managed to build in delays into European engagement at sea. They’re actively sort of hiding, in fact, from migrant boats, so that they are not drawn into rescue operations. We can see how a strategy is being created, that slows down — actively and consciously slows down — rescue efforts,” he said.


Additional reporting by Wasim Riaz.

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