Ferry trial in unsafe court

The trial to assess blame for one of Greece’s worst peacetime disasters at sea, in which 80 people died when the Express Samina ferry sank off Paros in 2000, started in Piraeus yesterday under chaotic conditions, in a congested courthouse that reportedly fails to meet elementary safety standards. Six of the ferry’s officers and seamen are on trial, together with two former representatives of the passenger ferry company and a former Merchant Marine Ministry safety inspector. Only two of the defendants, Captain Vassilis Yiannakis and First Mate Anastassios Psychoyios, face criminal charges – for manslaughter with possible malice aforethought. The other suspects have been charged with misdemeanors. Yesterday’s opening session was held under cramped conditions in the small court building, while tempers ran high as seamen’s union representatives who tried to force their way into the Piraeus courthouse were repelled by police. Hundreds of relatives of the 80 dead passengers and crew gathered outside the building, but were unable to gain entry. The 460-odd witnesses who are due to testify during the trial were summoned by loudspeaker to enter the courtroom in groups of five, to register for the process. Court sources said yesterday that the Justice Ministry overruled objections by Piraeus prosecutors over the use of the local court for such a major trial, arguing that there was no alternative option. Piraeus municipal officials have expressed severe reservations over the use of the building, which they say is lacking in basic safety standards, which could pose a major risk to life and limb in case of fire or other accident. Further documents made public yesterday show that, following an April visit, Piraeus Municipality inspectors said it was impossible to say how many people could safely fit into the courtroom, the antechamber and the staircase leading to it, during the trial. Court officials are now looking into the possibility of holding the trial elsewhere. The Express Samina sank on the night of September 26, 2000, after hitting a landmark rock off Paros during a soccer match that several of the ship’s crew had been watching on TV. The ferry, which had been heading from Piraeus to Patmos, was carrying 472 passengers and 61 crew members.