US flotilla organizers plan to push on despite hurdles

US activists opposed to Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip are determined to fight for the release of their boat, the Audacity of Hope, and captain John Klusmire, from Greek custody in order to continue on to Gaza. 

While other boats in the Gaza-bound flotilla have reportedly faced acts of sabotage and administrative hurdles, the detention of and impending felony charges against Klusmire present US organizers with a unique challenge. They have, they said, seen a lack of support from the US government.

The Audacity of Hope was carrying 36 activists when it set sail on 1 July from Greece to Gaza as part of the Freedom Flotilla, a group of boats going to Gaza with humanitarian aid. Greek authorities seized the boat 20 minutes after it set sail and jailed its captain, who is expected to face felony charges tomorrow for violating Greece’s nautical laws.

Opponents of Israel’s four-year blockade of the Hamas-controlled territory believe it has created a humanitarian disaster that necessitates international intervention. 

A flotilla set sail for Gaza from Turkey in May of last year. Israel faced international condemnation after Israeli forces killed nine activists on board one of the six boats as they entered Gaza’s territorial waters.

The Audacity of Hope spokesperson Leslie Cagan described the “very primitive conditions” of Klusmire’s detention: “No food, no water, no bed, no toilet facilities, no bail.”

Cagan said Greek authorities have permitted visitors to provide food and water to Klusmire.

Although Greek authorities stopped several flotilla boats from continuing on to Gaza, Klusmire is the only captain facing criminal charges. 

Greece’s Ambassador to Egypt, Christodoulos Lazaris, said that Klusmire’s detention is not based on any selective prosecution. He said Klusmire had committed 14 infractions of Greece’s nautical safety code.

“He knew the boat wasn’t seaworthy but decided to sail anyway,” Lazaris said. “Had he sailed, he most probably would have had a problem on the high seas.”

According to Lazaris, Klusmire is facing legal prosecution due to his “deliberate disregard for the safety of the boat and its passengers.”

On their website, the Audacity of Hope organizers state that while Greek officials had inspected the boat five days before its departure, the results of the inspection had not been delivered to Klusmire until the boat set sail and was intercepted by Greek authorities. 

The inspection was prompted by a complaint filed by the Israel Law Center, a Tel Aviv-based NGO focused on fighting terrorism.     

Currently, the Audacity of Hope organizers and participants are attempting to find adequate legal representation for Klusmire.

He has not received any visit or assistance from US Embassy officials in Athens, Cagan said.

Cagan says consular assistance to US citizens facing prosecution abroad is “standard operating procedure,” so finds its absence in this case “upsetting and surprising.”

US State Department Press Officer Joanne Moore believes consular assistance might be forthcoming.

“I’m sure he’ll probably get something,” she said, referring to Klusmire.

Speaking about Klusmire’s detention, Ambassador Lazaris defends Greece’s actions: “We are working strictly along the lines set down by the UN – strictly by the book. And that’s all there is to it.” 

The ambassador’s press consultant, Stamatina Ioannidou, added the Greek government intends to deliver the flotilla’s humanitarian aid to Gaza itself. 

But US flotilla participants are still determined to reach Gaza.  According to their website, some activists were detained and released for staging an “open-ended fast” in front of the US Embassy in Athens yesterday. They were calling for the release of Klusmire and their boat. 

Asked why organizers chose to sail from Greece as opposed to Egypt, Cagan said, “From a logistical stance, it was the most logical thing to do.”

Although they are currently focused on the release of Klusmire and the Audacity of Hope, organizers say they don’t want to forget their overall mission.  

“We don’t want to lose site of what this whole issue is from the beginning – the Israeli blockade of Gaza,” Cagan says.

She concludes by referring to her group’s current legal hurdle: “This is just an extension of that blockade.”

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