ATHENS – Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, his government reeling from accusations of police brutality after scenes of officers beating COVID-19 health measure violators, appealed for calm to ratchet down growing tension.
Violence erupted after police went to a square in the Athens neighborhood of Nea Smyrni to ticket people gathering in defiance of health protocols during an extended third lockdown that has brought frustration.
With cases soaring and public hospital Intensive Care Units (ICU's) nearly overwhelmed with people on ventilators, the government was stepping up enforcement against people not following the rules.
Police said they were attacked by demonstrators but a video showed otherwise and a police officer seen attacking a protester with a baton was suspended, the incident later drawing a crowd of 500 that grew ugly fast.
The government suggested the major opposition SYRIZA was behind attacks on police that saw them pelted with Molotov Cocktails and stones, responding with blasts from a water cannon and stun grenades, creating a battlefield.
Mitsotakis has gone back and forth with lockdown measures, from tough to lenient to tough, patience running out as COVID-19 fatigue has grown, with businesses – especially shutdown bars, restaurants and taverns pleading to open.
Mitsotakis, called for restraint after an initially peaceful demonstration against police aggression turned violent, seeing three officers injured – including one seriously when he was pulled off a motorcycle, an alleged perpetrator arrest.
The area quickly became a war zone, with both sides exchanging fusillades of rocks, firebombs and tear gas, a melee erupting as police were repelled by the huge mob only to wade into it again.
“I am addressing young people, who are destined to create and not to destroy,” said Mitsotakis in an impromptu TV after images of the police officer repeatedly kicked before fellow officers formed a protective circle around him.
“Blind rage does not lead anywhere. It should serve as a wake-up call that the life of a young policeman was endangered. At this point everyone must display restraint and calm,” he said, but there was another rally a day later in the neighborhood of Nikaia.
With tension rising, thousands of students took to the streets denouncing the centre-right government’s plans to install unarmed police units on university campuses under an earlier plan, the British newspaper The Guardian reported.
RAGE AGAINST THE POLICE
“Rage is building up,” said Panagotis Katis, 20, a political science undergraduate at the University of the Peloponnese as he marched on the Athens Parliament. “It’s not just the campus police which goes against every notion of universities being places that ensure freedom of expression. People are incensed that their basic rights are being attacked by police who should be protecting us, not abusing the law, and that’s why so many are out here today,” he said.
The man scene in the video being with the iron baton said he was just sitting on a bench when a police officer approached as squads were attempting to fine health measure violators.
“He pushed me and then the other officers kicked me all over my body,” the man, a student, told the Leftist Efsyn, explaining he had been trying to reason with the officers handing out 300-euro ($359) tickets.
Government spokesman Aristotelia Peloni, said that the video footage shared on social media was “disturbing to everyone,” and the Public Order Ministry said there would be an investigation.
SYRIZA and government critics complained of growing police aggression under New Democracy which said it would restore law and order to area the Conservatives said its rival had conceded to anarchists and lawbreakers.
But complaints of police brutality have soared particularly since the start of the pandemic, according to the ombudsman tasked with looking into the latest incident, The Guardian said.
Human rights groups and the Athens Bar Association have also criticized the excessive use of force, saying a crackdown came after the government hadn't acted to corral violators and went the other way when COVID-19 cases jumped.
Among the alleged abuses are reports of people being strip-searched in broad daylight, the paper's report alleged, and human rights groups said police actions were becoming too aggressive.
SYRIZA leader and former premier Alexis Tsipras said, “The country has a government that has totally lost control of the pandemic, and the only thing it knows how to do … is use a heavy hand,” ripping Mitsotakis.
Adding to the rage has been thousands of supporters of jailed terrorist killer Dimitris Koufodinas, who's been on a hunger strike more than two months, demanding a transfer from a prison in central Greece to Athens.
His supporters were in the crowd protesting the police, The Guardian said, with one saying: “We’re all here, including his son over there,” said one protester/
“Koufodinas wanted us on the streets. It’s getting explosive. There’s a lot of anger in the air.”
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