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Letter from Athens: They Started the Fires Still Burning Across Greece

October 17, 2021

There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip in Greece, so don’t count on anyone going to jail or facing any real punishment yet, but just referring to trial 27 people accused of negligence during the July 23, 2018 wildfires that killed 102 people and nearly wiped out the seaside village of Mati was a sign there may be justice.

But don’t count on it because we’ve seen this scenario before: big scandal breaks – an insurance company goes under and people disappear with the money, banks go bust and people disappear with the money etc. – and nothing happens to anyone. In this case though, it’s already a bit of retributive justice just to name people who hid under their desks or essentially did nothing to help create an effective response and were so wildly incompetent that people died who should still be alive.

An Athens prosecutor, George Polykratis, recommended they be put on trial, including some prominent members of the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA which was in power at the time, but then-premier and now major opposition leader Alexis Tsipras wasn’t one of them. He said he took “political responsibility,” at the same time his government had no real disaster response plan, some of the agencies under his administration being run by people who couldn’t run a hot dog stand outside Yankee Stadium and independent reports said was responsible for the death toll he tried to cover up.

So he’s happy to throw under the bus anyone around him who could deflect from his own incompetence but if they’re going to be tried why not the person who was allegedly in charge of the country and should have been at a command center? Among those who were named however – it’s no certainty they’ll ever see the inside of a courthouse, this being Greece – were Rena Dourou, the former Regional Governor of Attica; former General Secretary of Civil Protection, Yannis Kapakis, former Marathon Mayor Ilias Psinakis, and the current head of Greece’s Fire Service, Stefanos Kolokouris, who in 2018 was the head of the Special Disaster Unit (EMAK).

The list includes several high-ranking officials of the Fire Service, Hellenic Police (ELAS), and the Civil Protection agency and the 70-year-old man who started the fire by burning wood outside near Mount Penteli – but Greek media wouldn’t reveal it. Depending on their official role at the time, the 27 are facing charges of manslaughter by negligence committed through omissions by law enforcement officers, and causing bodily injuries due to negligence committed through omissions, said Kathimerini. Those charges are misdemeanors which means even if anyone is convicted the closest they’ll get to a jail is watching a prison movie on TV. The man who started the fire will face charges of arson for burning leaves and will get the worst of it. Polykratis’ indictment said the disaster was worsened because of “combined, convergent negligent behavior that led to the tragic outcome.” He said that the state under SYRIZA’s Amateur Hour administration was “unprepared,” that there was an “insufficient” mobilization of fire fighting forces, and that authorities “failed in their assessment” of the risk posed by the fire, the paper reported. He also found that not all available ground and air forces were immediately dispatched, given that a fire had also broken out in Kinetta, west Attica, while there was no proper operational management of water-dumping aircraft.

He should have added that the government failed to dispatch the Coast Guard, Navy, and a Dunkirk fleet if needed to pluck from the sea in Mati people who were waiting for rescue. The prosecutor’s proposal will be examined by Council of Misdemeanor Court Judges which, if it agrees, will lead to a trial, the tragedy now more than three years old and no idea when they’ll go to court for what could be a charade. The indictment is already a failure because no one is being charged with a criminal act who was in an official position and there’s no mention of an audio recording reportedly indicating ex-Fire Chief Vassilis Mattheopoulos warned an investigator to not report any failures. That came earlier from an Athens prosecutor, said Kathimerini, with investigator Dimitris Liotsis the target, as authorities tried repeatedly to upgrade charges against fire brigade and civil protection officials to felonies. “If you write about the responsibilities of your superiors, we will all gather and tear you apart,” Mattheopoulos is heard saying to Liotsios, the report said. In January this year Liotsios requested that the charges faced by officials be upgraded, citing false reports regarding the mobilization of the air resources, and the declaration of the region in a State of Emergency.

Family members of some victims sued and an independent report concluded that SYRIZA officials – like Tsipras – who were in charge when the fires struck northeast of Athens had no clue or plan to deal with such disasters. Nor was there apparently any mention of claims from Varvara Fytrou, whose husband and two children died, and who said that fire officials tried to cover their negligence. She wants them to be prosecuted on criminal charges. She accused fire officials of falsifying an incident log and her lawyer said fire officials tried to prevent investigators from having access to critical information. So when this is over all that will be left is ashes and politicians holding matches.

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