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ATHENS — Greece’s capital is no stranger to clashes between protesters and police. But the pandemic, activists and opposition lawmakers say, has marked a turning point.
In recent months, reports of police brutality have risen. With Greece under a second lockdown since November — after being hit harder by the second wave of the coronavirus than the first — demonstrations are banned, and police have enforced that ban with what many describe as excessive use of force.
Human rights groups and opposition parties are now warning that under the pretext of fighting the pandemic, the conservative government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is cracking down on protests.
“Having lost control of the pandemic and the economy, the government tries to set up an artificial scene of tensions in order to distract from its criminal responsibilities,” Syriza, the main opposition party, said of the demonstration ban.
Greece’s Amnesty International branch, meanwhile, documented several incidents in recent months of detainees and protesters being mistreated, overuse of chemical irritants such as tear gas, and other cases of excessive force.
Amnesty — as well other organizations such as the Hellenic League for Human Rights, opposition parties and the Athens bar association — say police brutality has surged since Mitsotakis came to power a year and a half ago in an election that toppled the leftist Syriza government.
In a report published in November but completed in May, a special committee set up to investigate police violence found that officers often acted with impunity when they became involved in violent incidents. It also observed failures to take testimony from critical witnesses and to have detainees examined by doctors, bias by investigative police bodies and a striking similarity in the statements of officers accused of brutality.
“Police violence and impunity have a long record in Greece and in no case can they be considered ‘isolated incidents,’” said Gabriel Sakellaridis, Amnesty International’s executive director in Greece. “Especially in the last year and a half, it is pretty evident that there is a hike in these incidents.”
Mitsotakis was elected on a law-and-order platform, having accused Syriza of allowing pockets of lawlessness to form, particularly in Athens’ anarchist Exarchia neighborhood. The country and particularly its capital had been rocked by at times violent protests over the past decade as Athens became the heart of Greece’s anti-austerity movement; its streets sometimes resembled a battle zone.
Complaints that the police were being given free rein under Mitsotakis began surfacing a few months after his election. But the pandemic gave the security forces — tasked with enforcing the strict lockdown rules — greater powers, and then came the ban on protests.
The government this summer decided to restrict or completely ban protests deemed to threaten public safety. The bill, under which the organizer is also accountable for any damage inflicted by the protesters, was sharply criticized by opposition parties and rights groups.
All protests then became effectively banned when Greece entered its second lockdown in early November. (In other countries, such as Germany, many demonstrations have been green-lit under social-distancing conditions.)
On November 17 — the anniversary of the 1973 student revolt against the military junta, a traditional protest day — the government imposed additional restrictions, banning gatherings of four or more people while 6,000 policemen were deployed to the streets.
The day was marred by violence. A socially distanced gathering of 1,500 communists was tear-gassed and multiple journalists reported police harassment. One woman even received a (later retracted) €300 fine for laying a flower at the university.
While Minister of Civil Protection Michalis Chrisochoidis compared the police to the national health service, images showed officers patrolling without wearing masks properly or respecting social distancing rules while detainees were held in cramped conditions.
Nantia Tzortzi, a 23-year-old medicine student in the northern city of Ioannina, said she and others were beaten by officers without any provocation after leaving their university campus to hold a socially distanced march of 60 people. Police say the protesters attacked them first.
Six of the protesters were hospitalized, while 23 were arrested and now face charges of — among others — damaging foreign property (police bats), disturbing the peace, weapons possession (the banners they were holding) and violating the protest ban, Tzortzi said. They were fined €900 each.
“It doesn’t make any sense. They say they want to safeguard public health and do that by smashing the students’ heads,” said Tzortzi. “Police officers have been unleashed. Their faces, full with rage, when they hit protesters, shows that they are not just following orders.”
Government: ‘No evidence’ of brutality
Human rights groups say the authorities have shown little interest in reining in the police.
“What constitutes a red line is the impunity of law enforcement officers,” said Amnesty’s Sakellaridis. “Greek authorities have been constant in their reluctance to grapple with this problem and to take the necessary legislative and practical steps to deal with the scale and systemic nature of human rights violations by law enforcement officials, preferring instead to deny complaints outright or dismiss them as isolated incidents.”
The government, meanwhile, has defended the security forces. “There is no evidence whatsoever that there is an escalation of the police violence,” Chrisochoidis said in parliament in December in response to the opposition’s complaints.
Government spokesman Stelios Petsas last month congratulated the police for their handling of the recent rallies and noted that during Syriza’s tenure, 262 complaints against the police were reported.
Meanwhile, the list of incidents keeps growing. Also on November 17, police detained 24-year-old Orestis Katis in Athens. His family says he was chased by officers after leaving a protest, with a policeman eventually forcing his way into their house and beating Katis as well as his mother who had tried to intervene.
The family went to the police station, where another scuffle ensued and they were beaten again, they said. Katis’ father Dimitris suffered a mild heart attack and had to be transferred to hospital, where he spent four days.
“They told the doctors in the ER that I’m under arrest and checked their IDs before letting them check me. It was only after the hospital’s union issued a statement that they left,” Dimitris Katis said.
The police say Orestis Katis was arrested outside his house after he attacked officers with stones, and that his family was arrested after “they harassed, insulted and tried to injure the police officers by using physical force and throwing metal objects.” All but the father face charges of attempted dangerous harm, violence against officials, insults, disturbance of the peace and violation of the law on weapons.
A week later, on November 25, nine women were arrested for taking part in a protest to mark the Day of the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Wearing masks and keeping a distance, they briefly unfolded a banner outside of parliament before their arrest. Michalis Chrysochoidis, the minister for civil protection, later apologized over this case, though the charges against them have yet to be dropped.
And on December 6, the anniversary of the death of a 15-year-old boy shot by police in 2008, another ban on gatherings was enforced. Police even stopped people from leaving flowers at the boy’s memorial. Those who did so were temporarily detained.
A video of that day showed one officer destroying a bunch of flowers and throwing the remains on the street; another video showed officers throwing tear gas canisters into a building and kicking a protester in the face. The police launched an inquiry into both incidents.
“It is very important, in addition to the right to health, to protect the right to public expression and public speech,” said Despoina Paraskeva Veloudogianni, an Amnesty International staffer who was among the nine women arrested in November. “Health is protected by democracy, the one is a precondition for the other.”
Published at Sun, 10 Jan 2021 19:04:00 +0000