IN THE four-and-a-half years since her wedding day, Julie Marku has spent less than one-third of her married life with her husband.
She enjoyed only one anniversary with him before they were separated and she’s desperately hoping they don’t have to spend another Christmas apart.
Mark Marku, 28, is in jail in Greece for crimes that independently verified evidence shows he could not have committed, following a trial that, by Irish standards, appears deeply flawed.
Now Julie, her parents, Bill and Phyl O’Reilly, and members of the Irish Innocence Project, are preparing for the long-awaited appeal they believe could secure his freedom.
“The way I feel changes every day,” said Julie, 30, who has returned to Greece for the hearing, due to begin tomorrow.
“One minute we feel good about it — we feel we’re going to get justice this time — and then something will happen and you’re in dread again. We’re going from thinking of him getting another eight years to him being acquitted. We’re very up and down.”
Julie, a preschool teacher from Rathvilly, Co Carlow, was on a working holiday on the Greek island of Crete in 2007 when she got chatting to Mark in an Irish bar.
From the town of Lezhe in Albania, Mark is one of more than 400,000 from his country who migrated to neighbouring Greece since the 1990s, swapping the under-developed, former Communist country for the relative wealth and opportunities of an EU state.
The pair began dating, and before long were making plans to spend the rest of their lives together. They spent some time in Ireland in 2008, returned here in April 2009 to be married, and then came back to settle down in December that year.
Julie got work in a creche but, hampered by his poor English reading and writing skills, Mark, who had been a waiter and plasterer in Greece, struggled to keep jobs, so when his brother got him some construction work in Crete in the summer of 2010, he travelled over and back a couple of times.
Then, in September, Julie got the phone call that shattered her life. Mark had been arrested in Crete along with his younger brother, Andreas, and six other Albanian men, and was being charged with multiple counts of armed robbery and car theft.
Julie took the next available flight to Greece and was shocked by the conditions she found Mark in. “He was in detention with about 40-50 men in the one room. It was very, very basic and very rundown. It had no hot water, no facilities. He was there for over a year.”
But there was worse to come. In January last year, Mark was convicted in a joint trial with four of the other defendants and sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Julie was in shock, even though the way the trial was conducted pointed to an unhappy outcome. “We looked for a separate trial for Mark because his defence was different from the others, but that was refused.
“Also, there was a civil prosecution going on at the same time even though they were told no compensation was going to be paid because none of them had finances to fund it. To me it doesn’t make any sense. It’s very hard to understand.”
Even harder to understand was the prosecution case against Mark. He was convicted of seven armed robberies of jewellery shops but was in Ireland on three of the dates when the incidents took place.
He was convicted on two counts of robbing from private homes, but was on a plane from Ireland on one of the dates. He was also convicted of six counts of car theft but was in Ireland on two of the dates.
No evidence was presented against him for 11 of the charges and the witness evidence used in four charges was contradictory.
Mark’s DNA was said to be on a pair of rubber gloves police claimed to have recovered from a robbery scene, but there is no record of the gloves being found or taken from the scene and that robbery took place when Mark was in Ireland.
One charge — of car theft — poses particular problems for Mark as he admits driving the vehicle and signed a statement in Greek admitting he stole it, but he has insisted ever since that he did not know it was stolen and could not read the statement he signed. He has offered alibis for all the other dates.
Julie believes what was going on outside the courthouse had more influence on the outcome of the case that what took place in front of the judge.
While at diplomatic levels, relations between Greece and Albania are cordial, on the ground where the Greek economic collapse has hurt most, anti-immigrant sentiment, always a feature, has been growing.
Human Rights Watch reported last year that “Xenophobic violence in Greece has reached alarming proportions”. With Albanians making up two-thirds of all immigrants in Greece, it was inevitable they would feel the brunt of the anger.
Soon after the trial, Mark was moved to a high-security prison outside Malandrino village in the Fokida area of central mainland Greece.
“He’s been in a small cell, with just two of them in the cell and it’s a bit more modern and there’s outside space for some exercise so it’s better from that point of view,” Julie said. “But there’s a lot more security measures in place and it’s very strict.
“When Mark moved to Malandrino he lost six kilos in two months. We had to send money every few weeks to buy water and food. During the summer it was very hot and he was spending €15-20 a week on bottled water alone”
Julie immediately began working to secure an appeal and tried to raise support for Mark’s case with the Irish Government, but Mark wasn’t in Ireland long enough to apply for citizenship, so as far as the Government is concerned, he’s none of their business.
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore has repeatedly replied to parliamentary questions and to Julie’s letters that the Irish Embassy in Athens cannot get involved because Mark is not an Irish citizen and the Government cannot intervene in the judicial affairs of another EU state. The Irish ambassador in Athens has been polite but of no practical help.
“I feel very frustrated by it all. Myself and my dad will be called as witnesses so we asked if we were entitled to any consular assistance, even just the presence of someone from the embassy, but we got nowhere.
“The Tánaiste called for the release of doctors unjustly jailed in Bahrain. They weren’t Irish either — they just studied here. I can’t see why he can’t do the same for Mark. It’s very frustrating.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs did help in one respect — certifying as authentic various official documents that show Mark was in Ireland on some of the dates in question.
But even to get those documents proved a battle and one that required the help of the Irish Innocence Project, the Irish branch of the US-founded and now international network of lawyers and law students who review doubtful convictions.
Director and barrister David Langwallner explained why the project got involved. “Julie was having real difficulties in getting in contact with the various people Mark said he worked for and associated with in Ireland and in getting documentary evidence about that.
“Student case workers were able to do that and once we saw that evidence we began to ask the obvious question — how can you be in two places at the same time?”
The Irish Innocence Project also secured the services of DNA expert Dr Greg Hampikian, who will testify about the unreliability of the rubber glove evidence.
David Langwallner and other members of the Innocence Project, including case worker Katie O’Leary, from Cork, are also travelling to Greece to attend the appeal.
Julie believes that if the defence is heard and properly considered, Mark will be freed, but as was the case with the original trials, the appeals of all five convicted men are happening simultaneously so she fears he will not get a thorough hearing.
Concerns have also been expressed by several politicians, among them Julie’s local TD, Pat Deering; Senator David Norris, TD Sean Crowe and MEP Paul Murphy.
Attempts by Julie, and Mark’s parents and sister back in Albania, to raise interest among politicians and diplomats has not so far been successful.
In addition to the emotional toll of the past few years, Julie is facing a bill for legal and other costs associated with the case of between €60,000 and €100,000.
Her parents, who have a florist shop in Knocklyon in Dublin, have already put their life’s savings into the campaign. “I am very, very fortunate that my parents have supported me in this. My savings were gone within 10 days of Mark’s arrest.”
Julie has been fundraising and says the public have been generally sympathetic and generous despite the complexities of the cause.
“When people see posters for cancer research or Alzheimer’s, that reminds them of someone they know but when they see a poster about Mark in my dad’s shop, it’s a situation they’ve never come across before. But for every one person who walks away, there are 10 who want to understand and help.”
By the end of this week, Julie should know if she’ll have Mark home for Christmas. “He was moved back from the mainland to Crete [last week] and I was allowed to see him for 15 minutes the day he got here. I don’t want any more 15 minutes. I want to spend my life with him.”
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