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Hanad Abdi Mohammad is haunted by nightmares.

They start as soon as he opens his eyes in a cell in the squat, whitewashed prison building on the Greek island of Chios.

“I have the same thought whenever I wake and that is ‘When will I taste freedom again?’” said the Somali. “I think of my wife and children. It fills me with hope.”

His recurring nightmare is about the event that prompted his conviction for people smuggling and staggering 146-year jail sentence.

Mohammad, 28, recently recalled how human traffickers abandoned the dinghy carrying him and other refugees shortly after the craft left the shores of Turkey.

“It was a terrible night,” he told a visiting delegation of MEPs and journalists in the prison director’s office. “I was sitting right next to the smuggler when he threatened me, saying ‘you drive’. I now realise that if I hadn’t we would all have drowned.”

In another cell less than 10 metres away were two Afghan men, Amir Zahiri and Akif Rasuli, also in their 20s and similarly serving life sentences. In September 2020 both were found guilty of “facilitating illegal entry” of undocumented refugees and “provoking a shipwreck” and convicted for 50 years.

They, too, have protested their innocence, insisting they are genuine refugees who have been wrongly accused of crimes they did not commit.

On Friday, the pair were to appeal against their jail terms before a three-member court sitting in Lesbos. After hours of waiting, the men were told the hearing would be postponed until 7 April.

The three are far from alone. Prior to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, asylum seekers convicted of human smuggling accounted for the second largest category of inmates in Greece, according to a report co-authored by several solidarity groups.

“Unfortunately our jails are full of them,” said Alexandros Georgoulis, one of the lawyers representing the Chios trio. “I have acted for so many who have spent years in prisons waiting, like these men, for their appeals to be heard. That’s because nearly every boat that arrives on our islands meets the same fate. If there is no driver, the Hellenic police or coastguard will randomly pick whoever is at the helm of the vessel and name him the boat’s captain, automatically opening the way to very serious criminal charges.”

The short but often perilous sea crossing from Turkey has long been a popular entry point into Europe for people fleeing war, poverty and persecution in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. In 2014, shortly before an estimated 870,000 Syrians landed on the Aegean isles en route to Europe, Athens sought to crack down on human trafficking rings along the Turkish coast with draconian legislation. People smugglers were handed unprecedentedly harsh sentences, with penalties ranging from 10 years for each trafficked person onboard to life imprisonment if deaths occurred on the journey.

Smuggling networks in Turkey responded by persuading or coercing their human cargo to steer boats themselves, according to rights groups, citing testimonies of arriving asylum seekers.

“Mohammad was forced at the point of a gun to steer the boat,” said Georgoulis, explaining that when the Somali subsequently called the Turkish coastguard for help, the appeal was met with a patrol boat violently encircling the vessel and pushing it towards Greece. In the mayhem that ensued, as the dinghy began to take in water and capsize, two of its passengers fell overboard. Their deaths by drowning further extended Mohammad’s sentence.

For human rights lawyers, casting refugees as traffickers is symptomatic of a wider policy aimed squarely at preventing men, women and children from attempting to make such journeys.

Invariably, those caught piloting boats are put on trial at breakneck speed without recourse to adequate legal representation and with harsh sentences handed down on the basis of flimsy evidence, lawyers have argued.

The number of asylum seekers convicted of people smuggling each year in Greece is thought to have doubled since March 2016, when the EU reached a controversial deal with Ankara to reduce migrant flows.

MEPs have expressed concerns over whether refugees accused of such crimes are getting fair trials. Four MEPs flew into Lesbos to attend Friday’s hearing.

“What has been happening is completely unjust,” said Stelios Kouloglou, an MEP for Greece’s main opposition, the leftist Syriza party, who is spearheading a campaign to have the cases raised at the European parliament. “It is outrageous that authorities should seek to deter asylum seekers by targeting people in this way. Neither Mohammad nor the Afghans had ever even seen the sea before they got into those boats.”

Zahiri was with his pregnant wife and child when he made the Aegean crossing – hardly the profile of a professional people smuggler, lawyers contend. Rasuli still struggles to find the words when he recounts his initial courtroom ordeal 18 months ago.

“No one appeared for the hearing, not even the coastguard official who testified against us,” he said, speaking from a police holding cell in Mytilene where the Afghans had been transferred ahead of the trial. “I still don’t understand. The court only allowed me to speak for one minute and then gave me 50 years in prison.”