Napoli, Greece -- Today, in the stifling Mediterranean heat, under a gold-leaf portrait of Jesus Christ, the trial of Michael Coleman, Soha Kneen and Sandra Ruch took place.
Coleman and Kneen were accused of obstructing a coast guard boat, a minor disobedience charge. The two 'kayaktivists' pled not guilty to their respective charges. Ruch, as owner of the Tahrir, and in light of the fact that all activists aboard the Tahrir claimed 'no comment' as to who had captained the boat, was ostensibly the sacrificial lamb in the affair. She was facing a variety of more severe charges, stemming from the fact that she did not try to stop the boat as it sailed away from the marina at Agios Nikolaos on July 4th, 2011. Ruch also pled not guilty.
The courthouse was filled to capacity with the entire 'captain by committee' crew of Tahrir activists. There was also a sizeable police presence, as well as a number of local activists with Palestinian flags in tow.
Ruch's trial was first. The judge was focused on obtaining information on who captained the Tahrir, but Ruch remained adamant that everyone aboard had 'little jobs', and that the Tahrir had been collectively captained. The charge of illegally operating a boat which does not have papers carries a much heavier sentence, but the judge's fishing for information offered no bites, as Ruch held firm.
The judge also continuously questioned Ruch as to her complicity in allowing the Tahrir to sail without the proper safety papers. Ruch maintained that the INSB (International Naval Safety Bureau) had given the Tahrir the 'green light' to sail, in fact several times, until the very day that orders came from the Greek government that all ships bound for Gaza from Greece were not allowed to sail. It was only then, claimed Ruch, that all the meager safety issues related to the Tahrir actually began to surface.
Coleman and Kneen's trial was next. The two stated that they had been paddling around, and in a demonstration of frustration positioned themselves in front of the coast guard cutter. It was never their intention to hang onto the anchor of the coast guard boat, claimed Coleman, but in the hub-bub of horn-blowing and engine revving that accompanied the Tahrir's departure, he had become disoriented and had clung to the anchor for safety.
Unable to obtain more information on who had captained the boat, the prosecution essentially resigned itself to the stonewall. Added to this, perhaps, was the fact that if they pursued the angle of sailing without papers with too much fervour, the defence might play the trump card of questioning the coast guard's response.
It is highly doubtful that boats simply sailing out of Greece without the proper safety papers, whose benches are declared to be too narrow to comfortably sleep on, as was the case with the Tahrir, are always chased by armed men in zodiacs, forcefully boarded, and towed back to port. The white elephant in the room was the Greek government's edict against sailing to Gaza from Greece, and it was clearly a bigger elephant to the prosecution. The three were given 30-day suspended sentences and 80-Euro fines each, and the courtroom was filled with applause.
"We pled not guilty," said Michael Sarchianakis, part of the legal defence team, outside the courtroom. "We didn't want to obstruct the naval port. We didn't want to cause any disturbance...The [activists] wery much aware, since July 1st, that no matter what they did, [the Tahrir] was not going to sail, was not going to get permission, because of a political decision made by the Ministry of Public Defence...All those on board knew they couldn't get to Gaza, they knew they couldn't get far, and all they wanted to do was do a so-called activist demonstration...they did this to draw media attention to an unlawful and unrighteous ruling of the Greek government."
"They found Sandra, because it was her name, under the company's name, as a director. It could have been anybody. [It was only] because her name was there. That's why she was charged."
Of course, the international laws that could have been used to challenge the Greek government's edict against sailing to Gaza exist. But, according to David Heap of the Canadian Boat to Gaza steering committe, that is a longer-term battle.
"Taking a government to court, on their own terms, takes a long time. And nobody's even sure if the Papandreaou government is going to last that long," says Heap. "Clearly this was a political trial, and clearly there's no political will to make an example of [Coleman, Kneen, and Ruch] for what they were doing. They were humanitarian people, engaged in a political action, for an oppressed people. And we know this is supposed to be an independent judiciary. But our Greek friends tell us that it is not really independent. So if [the court] took this approach, it is because the government knows that they can't afford to make severe penalties against [Coleman et al.]."
With recent news that the Greek-Swedish-Norwegian boat, Juliano, has been cleared to sail from Piraeus, and is in the water at the time of writing, it may well be that the Freedom Flotilla II is experiencing a second life.
Keep updated by visiting www.freedomflotilla.eu.
Miles will be reporting regularly to the Halifax Media Co-op from the Canadian Boat to Gaza. Visit Dispatches from the Tahrir for updates.