Briton’s Zakynthos murder acquittal heaps doubt on European Arrest Warrant and Greek justice

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

A human rights charity has called for the European Arrest Warrant to be reviewed after a Greek court acquitted a British man of killing a fellow holidaymaker on Zakynthos almost four years after the alleged incident occurred.

A court in Patra ruled on Friday that 22-year-old Andrew Symeou was not guilty of the manslaughter of 18-year-old Jonathan Hiles, thereby ending an ordeal that had seen the young Londoner spend the last 23 months in Greece trying to clear his name.

Symeou and his family had maintained that the student had nothing to do with the incident that led to Hiles being punched in a nightclub and later dying from head injuries. In the culmination of a three-month trial, whose start had repeatedly been postponed, the prosecutor agreed that there was no evidence linking Symou with Hiles’s manslaughter and the jury returned a ‘not guilty’ verdict.

“There are no winners or losers, only pursuit of the truth,” Symeou said after walking free. “Today’s verdict has only stopped further injustice and a possible gross miscarriage of justice.  I was not involved in any way in the death of Jonathan Hiles and the court agrees.  I can finally return home and begin building my life again.”

After being arrested in London in June 2008 and then extradited to Greece in July 2009, Symeou spent 10 months in custody in several Greek jails, including maximum security Korydallos Prison, where he was locked up with hardened criminals in conditions that the Fair Trials International (FTI) charity described as “appalling.” Despite repeated appeals by his parents, Frank and Helen, as well FTI, Greek judicial authorities rejected initial applications for bail on the basis that Symeou was not a resident in Greece.

“Even though it’s taken so long for Andrew to be acquitted, at the moment we are only thinking about returning home as soon as we can,” Frank Symeou told Kathimerini English Edition. “My family’s lives have been on hold for three years and we are all looking forward to resuming some sort of normality.”

Following Symeou’s acquittal, FTI called for European authorities to re-examine the grounds on which European Arrest Warrants, which allow suspects to be extradited within EU countries even if there is a lack of clear evidence linking them to a crime, are issued.

“Andrew Symeou is an innocent man, who was condemned by failures in Europe’s justice systems to a four-year nightmare,” said FTI’s chief executive Jago Russell. “While his friends were free to start their adult lives, Andrew was being dragged before the British courts, shipped off to a foreign land and held behind bars in one of Europe’s worst prisons.

“As the Symeou’s finally return home to start picking up the pieces, politicians in London and Brussels, with the power to build a better justice system in Europe, must not forget the ordeal this family has suffered.”

Symeou’s treatment should also lead to serious questions being asked about state of the Greek justice system, given that the young Briton was held in often appalling conditions when there were grave doubts about the police investigation and the collection of evidence that led to his arrest.

Symeou and Hiles were part of different groups enjoying a typical British teenager’s package holiday on Zakynthos in July 2007 when the incident, for which Symeou was arrested 11 months later, occurred. Early on July 20, Hiles was involved in a confrontation on a raised platform at the Rescue nightclub in Laganas. He was punched and fell to the ground, striking his head.

Hiles died two days later in an Athens hospital after suffering a severe brain injury. Symeou denied being in the club at the time of the incident and only discovered someone was killed when friends who returned to London from Zakynthos a couple of days after him revealed they had been questioned by the island’s police.

Symeou’s friends said they were coerced into saying that Andrew punched Hiles. The teenagers alleged they had been slapped, punched and choked before claiming Symeou was involved. On being released from custody, the two youngsters retracted their statements. The police officers alleged to have been involved were not called by the prosecution to testify in the Patra court.

There are also questions about the way the police obtain witness statements from five of Hiles’s friends as all the testimonies have exactly the same wording. They were also show photographs of the nightclub the night before the incident in which Symeou’s face had been ringed and the word “perpetrator” written next to it.

Symeou’s defense lawyer also pointed out that the witnesses said the attacker was clean-shaven, whereas the British student had a beard at the time. Furthermore, Zakynthos police appeared to have lost CCTV footage that allegedly showed Symeou and two friends leaving the nightclub after the attack.

The Sunday Telegraph newspaper reported that once the jury’s verdict was announced on Friday, Denzil Hiles, the father of the 18-year-old victim, walked across the courtroom and shook Symeou by the hand. “I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it,” Symeou is reported to have said. “I’m so sorry about your son.”

Nick Malkoutzis

You can read about some of the background to the Andrew Symeou case here.

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