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Pyromania Unchecked: Impunity for Arsonists Who Burned Greece

Αssociated Press

Flames approaching at Gouves village as aircrafts operate over a wildfire on the island of Evia, about 185 kilometers (115 miles) north of Athens, Greece, Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

ATHENS – For 20 years, Greece has failed to punish almost any arsonists who've destroyed many of the country's forests, some of which saw development for profit, but the New Democracy government said that will change after another series of devastating wildfires this summer.

The Conservatives have brought a new penal code with stricter penalties but Kathimerini said that its review of past cases going back to 2000 shows governments and courts letting arsonists get off scot-free. Not even the man who authorities said accidentally started the July 23, 2018 wildfire that killed 102 got off light – and he still hasn't been named – as a range of municipal officials and those with the then-ruling Radical Left SYRIZA being prosecuted haven't faced the courts three years later. The newspaper said that official figures over the period gathered by 50 prosecutors and 45 courts across the country showed 19,712 people have been prosecuted since 2000 for arson either through negligence or intent. But 97.2 percent were acquitted, only 564 found guilty but no report on what their punishment was, if any, and no names given despite being convicted, the general benchmark in Greece for the public to have a right to know.

For negligent arson, only 6.5 percent – or 490 people out of 7,463 prosecutions, were sentenced for the crime – no names given. For international arson – some past fires were believed deliberately set so that developers could then build on the land make a profit – the acquittal rate was 97.24 percent, only 74 of 2,796 people prosecuted penalized and the paper said almost none got jail time. That was largely because despite repeated summer fires that killed scores of people and the loss of millions of olive trees and other varieties that arson has been a misdemeanor and building on burned land was allowed.

After this summer's fires that cut Evia, Greece's second-largest island, in half, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis became the first to say that the lost lands would be reforested, under local guidance, and no development allowed. “The justice system has rarely exhausted the limits of its possibilities – even if the law was not strict – to secure temporary detentions of arsonists or to send arsonists to prison,” the paper also said. It pointed to the 2018 fires that almost wiped out the seaside village of Mati and with impunity still for those in power who were accused of negligence and not doing their duty, even hiding while the fires were raging instead of responding. Mitsotakis' government has gotten tough and within days, four arsonists who set off some of the hundreds of fires were swiftly prosecuted, convicted and given five-year prison sentences although it's not certain if they will serve the full time.