Istanbul: A Turkish court on Friday sentenced two Syrian people smugglers to more than four years in prison over the drowning of Aylan Kurdi, the toddler who became a symbol of Europe’s refugee crisis when his lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach.
But it cleared them of causing the death of five people “through deliberate negligence”, a charge that carried a sentence of up to 35 years in prison.
Pictures of the three-year-old Syrian toddler face down in the sand on a Turkish beach triggered global anguish and the public outcry, to a certain extent, spurred the EU into greater action in the crisis.
He drowned after his family decided in early September to make the risky journey across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece in an overloaded open boat.
Aylan’s mother Rihana and brother Ghaleb, four, and two others also died in the same accident as they attempted the crossing from Bodrum to the island of Kos.
Aylan’s father Abdullah Kurdi had been implicated in the tragedy, with Turkish authorities originally accusing him in absentia of being responsible for the deaths and driving the boat at the time of the disaster.
However, prosecutors had dropped the legal proceedings against Kurdi, who now lives outside of Turkey, at an earlier stage in the trial.
– ‘The true organiser’ –
A lawyer for the defendants, Kemal Ertugrul, said the pair would not have been jailed if they were Turkish and reaffirmed the past accusations against Abdullah Kurdi.
“There is one name missing from the real organisers and culprits,” he said.
“Nobody is looking for him. All the witnesses and those who experienced the disaster said the organiser is Abdullah Kurdi. Therefore I will file a criminal complaint against him.”
Asem Alfrhad said during the trial Abdullah Kurdi was the “the real criminal here… who became a hero on television but did not even testify.”
His family, many of whom are now based in Canada, had previously rubbished similar allegations against him broadcast by foreign television as “ridiculous”.
Kurdi became a prominent figure through media interviews following Aylan’s death and delivered an “alternative” Christmas message in Britain in 2015, aired on a rival channel at the same time as Queen Elizabeth II’s traditional address.
– ‘Break the business model’ –
The sentencing of the two men came as European Union head Donald Tusk was to meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for talks on how to stem the massive flow of migrants into Europe.
Speaking in Istanbul the day earlier, Tusk had expressed determination to “break the business model of smugglers” floating the idea that migrants could be shipped back to Turkey from Greece.
Experts agree that smashing the rackets of smugglers who have operated in Turkey for months with apparent impunity is key to solving the crisis.
“The EU has seen few improvements in Turkey’s control of the vast mafia networks that channel refugees,” wrote Marc Pierini, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, estimating traffickers earned at least 2 billion euros ($2.2 billion) in 2015.
Turkey has become the major hub for Syrian, Afghan, Iraqi, Eritrean and other refugees and migrants seeking to undertake the risky crossing to the European Union in a flow that has caused huge alarm across the continent.
The Turkish government struck a deal with the EU in November to halt the flow of refugees, in return for three billion euros ($3.2 billion) in financial assistance.
But the deal and wintry weather in the Mediterranean do not appear to have deterred the migrants, with people still arriving on the Greek islands daily.
According to the latest figures from the International Organization for Migration, 125,819 people have crossed the Aegean from Turkey to Greece so far this year. But it said arrivals have been below average so far in March, with 2,771 recorded.