This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
The main high-security prison in the Greek city of Patras is notoriously tough. In some cases, up to eight prisoners are crammed into a single five-square-metre cell. That prison is currently home to two German brothers*, aged 34 and 42, who were recently sentenced to life and fined €100,000 each for intent to sell weed.
Last week, I contacted the pair through their lawyers to ask about the trial and the subsequent imprisonment for a crime that, if committed back in Germany, would likely have resulted in a prison sentence of a few years. Talking to them, I saw just how differently drug laws are prosecuted across the EU.
Around 12PM on the 14th of October, 2017, police units stormed the brothers' flat and a nearby farm near the northern Greek city of Kavala. Behind some plastic curtains, the officers found weed stored over several layers of makeshift pallets. In another room, cannabis was drying on nets spread from the walls and attached to a weight bench. In total, around 100kg of unprocessed hemp and 1kg of cannabis flowers were seized that day.
At the edge of the farm's courtyard, shielded by a grain field, the police discovered 80 weed plants and a professional irrigation system. The brothers were arrested on drug trafficking charges, though at the time, they claim, they were told they would only be charged with possession.
The German Foreign Office say they are aware of the case and that consular assistance is being provided, but they would not comment any further on exactly what they are doing to help.
The brothers say they didn't receive a fair trial, and are still awaiting the official summary of the verdict. "The process was a bit strange," the 42-year-old told me. As the pair are not fluent in Greek, they should have been provided an interpreter for the entirety of their trial, as per EU rules. However, they said the judge continually interrupted their translator and pushed him to omit large parts of what was happening. "We couldn't follow the trial," the older brother added.
In the end, there wasn't a huge amount to follow, as the trial took just 20 minutes – with most of that time spent on the three judges and the state's attorney shouting down the Greek public defender, they claim. Before they realised what was happening, the judges withdrew to deliver a verdict.
The judges considered their case alongside four others that day, for a total deliberation time of 15 minutes. "That's three minutes per case. That's all it took to sentence us to life in prison and a fine of €100,000," the 42-year-old told me. Their verdict wasn't translated.
It wasn't until a few days ago, when they were sent a partial translation of the verdict, and learned the full extent of their trafficking charge.
Their claims about the trial are hard to verify without the full court transcript. Either way, it's clear the men face a very different outcome than they would have if they were tried in Germany. Firstly, one lawyer representing two clients would be illegal in Germany, said Ulrich Kerner, the Berlin-based criminal lawyer who is currently assisting the brothers with their appeal. Kerner and his colleagues are working on several theories as to how the Greek court might try to justify handing down such a harsh penalty.
I asked Kerner why he thought the sentence was so severe. "It was because they were charged with intent to sell and for having product that the court valued at above €75,000," he explained. In the brief summary of the judgment, the verdict reads: "coordinated and repeated trade in narcotics in the form of cultivation, growing and possession…with a market value of over €75,000". In 2015, a new ruling by the Greek supreme court made it possible to impose the life sentence if profits from drug trafficking exceed €75,000.
The issue here is that the Greek court is yet to explain how it went about valuing the brothers' product. The lack of specificity does give the court some wiggle room to do what they want. This could also explain why the document lists neither the number of confiscated plants nor their THC content – two components that are vital in how the case would have been decided in a German court, where the police would have dried the plants and decided on their exact market value in a lab.
Either way, the brothers wouldn't have received life sentences back home. In Germany, a life sentence is only given for murder or a particularly serious case of manslaughter. If they were part of a gang or were armed, "then you would be facing between three and eight years", estimated Kerner. But the court documents provide no evidence of that. Therefore, at most, a German court would have convicted the pair for commercial trading, under the Narcotics Act, but even then that would require proof they had intent to sell it repeatedly and to make a profit from the sales.
According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Greece is one of 12 countries in the EU which hand out life sentences for drug-related crimes. The country's eight-year minimum sentence for drug trafficking is also the highest in the EU. The only other EU member state that can send you to prison for life because of "significant financial gain" from drug trafficking is Estonia.
The brothers and their lawyers are still waiting to receive and review the comprehensive verdict. "It's hard to say how long that will take," Kerner told me. The Greek public defender did not ask for case to be expedited.
"For lots of prisoners here, it can take up to six or seven years for an appeal to be heard," said the older brother. "You get an appointment, but that's then postponed every year." And it's not until the court has ruled on their appeal that a prisoner can apply to serve out their sentence in their home country, which is possible between two EU states. If the Greek authorities do agree to a transfer, the German authorities would have to deal with a new problem: they would have to clarify what they think of the verdict and whether a life sentence for possessing cannabis is appropriate.
*We've withheld the names of the defendants in this case, to comply with German media convention.