ATHENS – Charged with enforcing health protocols during two lockdowns since March of 2019 aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, some human rights groups and rival politicians of the New Democracy government said it’s gone too far at times into brutality.
In a feature for Politico, reporter Nektaria Stamouli said reports of police being too aggressive against protesters – which the government denied has happened – are rising.
Under the Conservatives, demonstrations are controlled or prohibited and organizers face serious penalties if violence occurs, part of a plan the government said is to prevent traffic and disruption in the capital’s center.
Human rights groups and opposition parties, led by the former ruling SYRIZA ousted in July 7, 2019 snap elections, said Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is using the pretext of lockdowns to stop 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 said in a statement about protest bans – which the leftists also practiced while in power.
Greece’s Amnesty International branch told the site it has 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.
The group joined with others such as the Hellenic League for Human Rights, opposition parties and the AthensBar Association to claim there’s been police brutality under Mitsotakis’ rule.
In a report published in November, 2019 – six months after it was finished – a special committee set up to investigate police violence found that officers often acted with impunity when they became involved in violent incidents, the story added.
The report added there were failures to take testimony from critical witnesses and to have detainees examined by doctors, bias by investigative police bodies and officers making also verbatim similar reports over brutality charges.
“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 – and SYRIZA’s former spokesman. “Especially in the last year and a half, it is pretty evident that there is a hike in these incidents,” he said, without giving any numbers or specifics not noting his open hostility and bias toward New Democracy and the police.
Mitsotakis was elected partially on a platform to take back the streets and neighborhoods from anarchists favored by SYRIZA, which even wanted terrorist assassins released from jail and allowed furloughs.
There were complaints police getting tougher in the first months after Mitsotakis took office and now his critics and rights group said he’s using the pandemic as a ruse to get at protesters and stepping up security under the guise of trying to slow the spread of the Coronavirus.
The government has restricted or banned protests deemed to threaten public safety, just as SYRIZA did, but even during the pandemic, groups turned out for Nov. 17 demonstrations to mark the anniversary of the 1973 student revolt against the military junta, despite 6,000 police deployed to stop them.
There was some violence as a group of some 1,500 Communists who were trying to observe social distancing and wearing masks – although violating a rule against public gatherings – were tear gassed and journalists complained of harassment.
While Minister of Civil Protection Michalis Chrysochoidis 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 including damaging police batons, disturbing the peace, weapons possession (the banners they were holding) and violating the protest ban, Tzortzi said. They were fined 900 euros ($1094.13) each.
“It doesn’t make any sense. They say they want to safeguard public health and do that by smashing the students’ heads,”Tzortzi told Politico. “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
Sakellaridis said, “What constitutes a red line is the impunity of law enforcement officers. 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.”
Chrysochoidis said that’s not so and that, “There is no evidence whatsoever that there is an escalation of the police violence,” while speaking in Parliament in December, 2019 about the opposition’s complaints.
Then-government spokesman Stelios Petsas congratulated the police for their handling of the recent rallies and noted that during SYRIZA’s tenure, 262 complaints against the police were reported.
But the report said the list of incidents keeps growing, noting that on Nov. 17 police allegedly detained 24-year-old Orestis Katis in Athens, his family saying 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 said 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.
On Nov. 25 nine women were arrested for taking part in a protest to mark the Day of the Elimination of Violence Against Women, violating a public gathering rule although wearing masks and staying apart.
Chrysochoidis later apologized over this case, though the charges against them have yet to be dropped.
On Dec. 6, the anniversary of the death of a 15-year-old boy shot by police in 2008, another ban on gatherings was enforced, police preventing people from leaving flowers at the boy’s memorial and detaining them.
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, said the site.
“It is very important, in addition to the right to health, to protect the right to public expression and public speech,” 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,” she added.