July 05, 2011 — PIRAEUS, Greece (AP) — A Greek court on Tuesday released the American captain of a boat aiming to breach Israel’s blockade of the Gaza strip, four days after arresting him for trying to set sail from Greece without permission.
John Klusmire, the captain of the Audacity of Hope, had attempted to leave a port near Piraeus Friday in defiance of a Greek ban on the flotilla of boats leaving port. He had been in custody since he was arrested, and appeared in court Tuesday handcuffed and under police escort. He still faces trial at a later date.
Greece has banned all boats participating in the Gaza flotilla from leaving port, citing security concerns after a similar flotilla last year was raided by Israeli forces, leaving nine activists on a Turkish boat dead. The Greek foreign ministry has offered to deliver the humanitarian aid the activists want to take to Gaza itself.
Israel says it imposed the blockade in 2007 to stop weapons reaching Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza. Israel eased its land blockade after an international uproar over last year’s raid on the Turkish boat.
Klusmire appeared in court in Piraeus for a two-hour deposition on a felony charge of endangering sea traffic and the lives of passengers, and misdemeanor counts of sailing without a permit and violating port authority orders.
“He has been released and is free to go home,” said one of his lawyers, Manolis Stephanakis, after the hearing. “No trial date has been set and we expect the charges to be dropped. We presented a very strong case and we don’t need to call any more witnesses to testify.”
Flotilla activists who had gathered at the court to show support burst into cheers of celebration. They initially believed Klusmire had been acquitted, but his lawyer later said he had been released while still facing charges.
The captain himself appeared relieved after his deposition, and was cheered on by 30 fellow activists chanting “We love John.” “This is a much better outcome than I anticipated,” he said. Earlier in the day, Greek officials and flotilla activists said three activists connected to another boat carrying mainly Canadians had been arrested over an attempt by that vessel, the Tahrir, to also set sail in defiance of the Greek ban.
David Heap, a spokesman for the Tahrir, identified those detained as Canadians Sandra Ruch and Soha Kneen, and Australian Michael Coleman. The boat tried to leave the southern Greek island of Crete on Monday, but was forced to turn back by Coast Guard vessels.
The Greek Merchant Marine Ministry said one of the Canadians, who was responsible for the boat, was arrested on charges of illegally sailing without permission. The other Canadian national and the Australian were arrested for using kayaks to block a coast guard vessel from setting sail to stop the flotilla boat.
Protesters also took action in the Greek capital, with a small group of activists from a Spanish-run boat entering the Spanish embassy in Athens and starting a sit-in, hanging a Palestinian flag from a balcony and demanding that Spain pressure Greece to let their boat sail.
Manuel Tapial, a spokesman for the Spanish vessel Gernika, said the protesters were peaceful. A statement from the organization in charge of the vessel, Rumbo a Gaza, said protesters were not interfering with the work of embassy staff.
One boat from the flotilla appeared to have evaded attempts to stop all vessels connected to the effort to breach the Israeli blockade. French pro-Palestinian activists said from Paris the Dignite-Al Karama was in international waters and on its way.
Jean-Claude Lefort, a spokesman for the group, told The Associated Press Tuesday that the boat left a port near Athens early Monday with eight activists and two crew members on board. If true, it would be the first flotilla boat to leave Greece.
However, the claim could not be confirmed. Greek authorities said they were looking into the report. Greek activist Dimitris Plionis said during a news conference in Athens that the boat had been in a “safe” area “in this part of the Mediterranean.” He said it was not sailing to Gaza at the moment, but was waiting for other boats from the flotilla to join it.
Christopher Torchia and Elena Becatoros in Athens, and Greg Keller in Paris contributed.