Greece’s state ombudsman said Thursday he was launching an independent investigation into the coastguard’s handling of the June maritime tragedy in which hundreds of migrants trying to reach Europe in an overloaded boat are feared to have drowned.
The independent authority said it made the decision following “the express refusal” of the Greek coastguard to launch a disciplinary investigation in response to the ombudsman’s written requests.
The Council of Europe, the continent’s most important human rights group, welcomed the move.
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The council’s human rights commissioner, Dunia Mijatovic, said an independent investigation to establish what happened and, if necessary, lead to the punishment of those responsible, was “of the utmost importance”.
“The initiative taken today by the institution of the Ombudsman is a very important contribution to this effort,” she said in a statement.
A military court responsible for Greece’s navy and coast guard is also conducting a preliminary investigation into the June 14 shipwreck, from which 104 survivors and 78 bodies were recovered.
Up to 750 people are believed to have been on the rusting fishing vessel, mostly below decks, when it listed abruptly and quickly sank overnight. This would make it one of the worst disasters of its kind in the Mediterranean.
The court is also handling a lawsuit by 40 survivors, who accuse the Coast Guard of failing to prevent the wreck and loss of life.
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Activists and human rights groups strongly criticized the coast guard’s handling of the operation, even though a patrol boat had accompanied the trawler for hours and was present when it sank in deep water 45 miles off southwest Greece.
The Coast Guard said the sinking appeared to follow a mass movement of people on deck to one side, which overturned the overcrowded trawler. He also said that the migrants, who were trying to reach Italy from Libya, had earlier been refused help.
However, some survivors said the ship foundered during a failed towing attempt – something the Coast Guard strongly denied.
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The ombudsman said there was a need for “total transparency” about how the Greek authorities handled the operation.