ATHENS – Tension over enforcing COVID-19 health measures erupted into violence in the neighborhood of Nea Smyrni when police and demonstrators clashed in a battle that saw tear gas and stun grenades used to break up a crowd.
Police said they were attacked while the protesters said police officers pulled out batons and started whacking people and produced social media videos showing people were arguing with the officers who then assaulted them.
The crowd was also protesting what demonstrators said was police violence after an earlier altercation the same day on March 7 when squads of law enforcement officers went there to investigate reports of violations of the health restrictions during a third extended lockdown.
Police said they were set upon by a group of 30 people who injured two police officers. Police reinforcement detained 11 from among the group, police say.
But videos uploaded on several websites showed peaceful citizens arguing with police and suddenly being thrown to the ground and attacked with batons, which prompted another protest later that turned ugly.
Rival parties of the ruling New Democracy, who had been criticizing the government’s handling of the pandemic immediately attacked with verbal shots against what they said were “police repression.”
“It wasn’t an accident. The government and (Prime Minister Kyriakos) Mitsotakis wanted this,” said Pavlos Christidis, the spokesman for the Socialist party Movement for Change.
With the number of new cases of COVID-19 still well above 1,000 daily, the Athens area as well as others across Greece are under a strict lockdown and police patrols conduct checks to see if people are keeping social distancing and refrain from traveling unnecessarily.
On the same day of the clashes, police said they conducted 71,177 checks across the country, finding 2,025 violations; 1,627 concerned unauthorized movement, 304 non-wearing of masks and 91 illegal operation of businesses.
The head of the Athens Prosecutor’s Office, Sotiria Papageorgakopoulou, ordered a preliminary investigation into reports of police misconduct during a motorcycle patrol in the neighborhood.
The inquiry has been assigned to the head of Criminal Prosecution, Nikos Ornerakis, who will investigate these claims.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)