ATHENS – Laws curbing protests in Greece’s capital during a second COVID-19 lockdown were denounced by a cadre of critics including demonstrators, journalists and lawyers who said police got rough in trying to enforce it.
After the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA essentially let protesters run amok, clogging traffic and disrupting the city center, the New Democracy government has put clamps on demonstrations.
The law now requires that police be notified of protest events and sets fines for organizers if they get rowdy or violent or violate other measures aimed at keeping them confined.
That was intensified in July when the Parliament, in what the government said was designed to help slow the spread of COVID-19, banned some protests outright, which was ignored by some groups during the Nov. 17 annual marking of a 1973 student movement that helped bring down a junta.
Protests can now be legally prohibited if the government deems they are a threat to public safety which critics said opens the door to keep almost anyone off the streets with legitimate grievances.
That law, said Al Jazeea in a feature about the backlash, had been denounced by a number of groups, including Amnesty International, the Athens Bar Association and Parliament's Legislative Review Committee as too Draconian.
With a second lockdown imposed Nov. 7 – not set to expire until at least Jan. 7, 2021, people aren’t allowed out of their homes except for permissible missions such as going to supermarkets, pharmacies, doctors, banks, taking exercise or walking a pet.
That has been far more lenient than a first 10-week closing beginning in March that worked to hold down the number of cases and deaths but has seen a second wave resurgence nearly overwhelming public hospitals.
But going to a protest is not allowed.
There have been complaints that police have gone too far in enforcing that against defiers, including the use of tear gas and water cannons, especially trying to quell Nov. 17 demonstrations.
More than 6,000 police were deployed, said the news site, adding that there were reports that journalists were harassed and one woman received a 300-euro ($364.81) fine for trying to lay a flower at the Polytechnic in a tribute to the victims, later rescinded.
Nick Papageorgiou said he was arrested for protesting, along with other members of the KKE Communists, although he said they followed health protocols to wear masks and stay a safe social distance from each other.
Police tear-gassed the crowd and he was taken to the police station in central Athens with about 40 others, the report said, with Papageorgiou saying they were detained in close proximity in violation of the health measures.
“There was absolutely no (distancing) measures and we were more than 47 people in that small room,” he said.
Journalist Tony Rigopoulos told the site that there was alleged violent attack on a “peaceful” demonstration by the Communist Party and that he was fined for wearing a gas mask to protect himself from the tear gas.
Police, he said, did not take into account his role documenting the protest, and refused to look at his press ID. IN a blog post, he said anger at those who defied the ban “cannot justify the unacceptable police brutality” against protesters and journalists.
On Nov. 25, nine women, including an Amnesty International staff member, were arrested for taking part in a protest to mark the Day of the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
“The nine women, including an Amnesty International member of staff, were wearing masks and observing physical distancing rules during their protest, so it is unclear why they face criminal charges for breaching public health rules and fines,” said Nils Muiznieks, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for Europe.
Civil Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis later apologized for these arrests on Greek radio and said it had been an exaggerated response by police trying to enforce COVID-19 measures.
On Dec. 6, during the anniversary of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos’ shooting death in 2008 by a special police guard, who has been released from jail, people trying to leave flowers at his memorial were detained.
There were again reports of journalists being harassed by police and protesters being held with no social distancing measures as Victor Antonopoulos, a journalist for Athens 984 public radio, told Al Jazeera he saw police pushing reporters trying to cover the attempted arrest of some people.
“They started pushing and hitting us with their shields,” Antonopoulos said, adding that police threatened them and obstructed their work as journalists for several hours.
“We’re not in danger from the protesters most of the time but from the police,” he also said.
Petros Constantinou, from the anti-racist organisation KEERFA, was arrested at a socially distanced protest and said that doctors and trade unionists were also among those detained. Constantinou said he was held at a police station with dozens of others and no physical distancing enforced.
“It was a fiasco, this operation by the police,” he said.
Thanasis Kampagiannis and Costas Papadakis, lawyers known for successfully prosecuting the neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn, said they were arrested on the day commemorating Grigoropoulos, while acting in their professional capacity.
The Athens Bar Association released a statement condemning the arrests, calling them “unprecedented” action that “violates the essence of the legal function and seriously damages the core of the rule of law.”
After a video of a riot policeman destroying a bouquet of flowers at Grigoropoulos’s memorial went viral, the ministry for citizen protection defended the police force.
It said that they had protected the city of Athens on the day and that it was a “political choice” to focus on the actions of one police officer and not the 4,999 others, but began an inquiry into the officer.
Manos Moschopoulos from the Open Society Foundations said that the events of December 6 set a “disturbing precedent”, adding that they “should be seen as a warning sign for all who believe in the freedom of expression and democracy.”
Lia Gogou, Greece researcher for Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera they were concerned about the nature of the ban. “While restrictions are necessary during a pandemic, blanket bans against protest that completely restrict freedom of expression and assembly cannot be justified,” she said.