Spanish court reopens probe into drowning of 15 migrants

In February 2014, some 250 migrants tried to swim to Ceuta, one of two Spanish territories surrounded by Morocco and the Mediterranean Sea

A Spanish court has reopened a probe into the drowning of 15 migrants as they tried to swim from Morocco to Spain's North African territory of Ceuta while police in riot gear tried to stop them.

An appeals court in Ceuta said it had admitted an appeal against the closure of the investigation filed by three human rights groups and several migrants, in a ruling issued Thursday which was obtained by AFP.

Some 250 migrants tried early on February 6, 2014 to swim to Ceuta, one of two Spanish territories surrounded by Morocco and the Mediterranean Sea.

Despite initial denials, Spain's interior ministry released videos showing police firing rubber bullets as the migrants swam toward Ceuta's shore but denied the action contributed to the drowning.

But rights groups said the rubber bullets pierced the life jackets used by the migrants, many of whom did not know how to swim, and demanded an investigation.

Only about 20 migrants managed to enter Ceuta, which sits across main and they were immediately returned to Morocco.

The bodies of 15 migrants were found in the days that followed, five in Spain and the rest in Morocco.

The deaths sparked outrage and several rights groups filed complaints against police.

The authorities said the rubber bullets were fired in the air and were appropriate given the aggressive behaviour of the migrants while they were in the water.

A court opened an investigation into 16 police officers for the suspected crimes of homicide and injuries caused by negligence over the migrant deaths but in October 2015 the judge in charge of the case closed the probe citing a lack of evidence.

The judge also argued that the migrants had "assumed the risk of illegally entering Spanish territory, by sea."

But the appeals court in Ceuta agreed with the rights groups, which mainly argued the investigation had not been complete since direct witnesses at the scene, including some of the surviving migrants, had not been questioned.

Every year thousands of Africans try to reach Europe via Spain's two north African enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, either by swimming along the coast or climbing walls lined with razor wire that mark the border with Morocco.

Rights groups frequently complain about the treatment received by migrants who arrive at the two territories, saying they are often returned to Morocco without getting the chance to file a request for asylum