Migrant workers react with shock and tears to the decision to release two of the men on trial; the strawberry pickers had demanded six months’ back pay and four were badly injured. Photograph: Menelaos Mich/Demotix/Corbis
A Greek court’s decision to acquit farmers who admitted shooting 28 Bangladeshi strawberry pickers when they asked for months of back pay has sparked outrage in the country.
Politicians, unions and anti-racist groups condemned the verdicts, describing them as a black day for justice in a case that had shone a light on the appalling conditions in which migrant workers are often kept in Greece.
“I feel shame as a Greek,” said the Bangladeshis’ lawyer, Moisis Karabeyidis, after the ruling in the western port city of Patras. “This decision is an outrage and a disgrace … the court showed an appalling attitude toward the victims.”
Scores of migrants, many sobbing in disbelief, protested outside the court after magistrates cleared two of the attackers, including the farm owner.
Two others, accused of aggravated assault and illegal firearms possession, were jailed for 14 years and seven months and eight years and seven months, but were freed pending appeal.
The strawberry pickers were shot in April last year when they demanded to be paid for six months’ work at a farm in Manolada in the southern Peloponnese. Four were badly injured in the attack.
At a time of unrivalled crisis in Greece, where living standards have deteriorated dramatically after six years of recession, the case had triggered widespread indignation. Media investigations showed the migrants to be working in subhuman conditions without access to proper hygiene or basic sanitation.
Politicians who took up the cause also weighed in on Wednesday sayingsaid the verdict set an unwelcome example for other employers. “It sends the message that a foreign worker can die like a dog in the orchard,” said Vassiliki Katrivanou, an MP with the main opposition radical-left Syriza party. She added that in a nation where fruit farm labourers were frequently from overseas, the attack in Manolada was far from being an isolated incident.
“It leaves room for new victims by closing eyes to the brutal, inhuman and racist character of the exploitation suffered by workers on the land,” she said, pointing out that the ruling had been made on World Day against Trafficking in Persons.
The farmers had instructed top criminal lawyers to defend them in a court drama that lasted for over a month. More than 40 prosecution witnesses had testified in a case in which the prosecutor had asked that exemplary punishment be made.
Denouncing the judgment as scandalous, anti-racism organisations said it raised questions about the impartiality of the justice system and vowed to step up protest action against the decision.
“We call upon unions and human rights movements to react against this unprecedented racist scandal,” said Petros Constantinou, coordinator of the Movement Against Racism and the Fascist Threat, in a statement. “The hundreds of millions of profit made in the strawberry industry cannot come about by shooting labourers in strawberry fields.”