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Only 1 person convicted in trial over refugee boat disaster in eastern Turkey

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A Turkish court handed down more than 1,000 years in prison to only one of the defendants in a trial concerning the sinking of a refugee boat in eastern Turkey, the Demirören News Agency (DHA) reported on Wednesday.

The boat capsized late at night on June 27, 2020 with as many as 80 people on board, and Turkish rescue teams retrieved the bodies of 61 asylum-seekers, mostly from Afghanistan and including two children, weeks after the disaster.

The accident occurred on Lake Van, a large inland lake in eastern Turkey, near the border with Iran. The migrants were crossing the lake in a fishing boat in an apparent attempt to avoid police checkpoints on the highways, on their journey toward western Turkey.

According to DHA, the Van 7th High Criminal Court gave Medeni Akbaş, one of the captains of the boat, 16 years, eight months for the deaths of each of 60 migrants with an additional 25 years for the death of one the children and eight years for smuggling migrants.

The remaining 11 defendants were acquitted, DHA said.

Turkey hosts the world’s largest number of refugees, with 3.7 million from Syria granted temporary protection status, and over 400,000 refugees and migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries.

Since 2018, Afghans have been arriving irregularly in Turkey and then departing for Greece in larger numbers than any other nationality.

Driven by worsening conflict in their country and an economic crisis in Iran, the number of Afghans apprehended for irregularly entering Turkey increased from 45,000 in 2017 to more than 200,000 in 2019. At the same time, the number of Afghans arriving in Greece by sea from Turkey increased from just over 3,400 to nearly 24,000.

During that time, Turkey’s policies towards people fleeing conflict, especially Afghans, have hardened. As the number of Afghans crossing the border from Iran increased, Turkey cut back on protections and accelerated efforts to apprehend and deport those entering irregularly. In 2019, the Turkish government deported nearly 23,000 Afghans from the country, according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA.

When the shipwreck happened, on June 27, the picture that initially emerged was murky, with the local gendarmerie blocking lawyers and journalists from reaching the lake’s shore. The Van Governor’s Office announced after two days that security forces had found a missing boat captain alive and launched a search mission.

The Turkish government is criticized for following a policy of impunity in such disasters, failing to carry out an effective investigation in most of the incidents.

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