ATHENS – The trial in Greece of activists who protested China holding the 2022 Winter Olympics – which have just begun – has been delayed until the end of the year amid accusations the postponement was to avoid embarrassing China, a major investor in Greece.
The trial was due to start Feb. 7 in the western Greek town of Pyrgos, with human rights lawyers traveling from the United Kingdom and Athens to make their case for the defendants, a Briton, an American and a Tibetan-Canadian, arrested when they briefly disrupted the Olympic flame lighting ceremony in October, 2020.
“Our pleas to the court for the case to be heard fell on deaf ears,”Michael Polak at the legal aid group Justice Abroad, who had flown in from London on behalf of the defendants told the British newspaper The Guardian.
“They pushed it into the long grass so as not to have to deliver a decision before the Beijing Olympics,” he said, with no response reported from the New Democracy government.
Before rescheduling the trial for Dec. 1, the three-member court’s presiding judge, Vassiliki Reppa, had instead focused on cases concerning boundary infringements and other minor disputes, the report said.
“We made an express plea to bring the case forward, as it was towards the end of the listed hearings, but the bench strongly refused to do so,” said Antonis Bachouros, a local lawyer also defending the activists.
“They could have prioritized the case, given its sensitivity and the seriousness of the accusations, but chose not to,” he added, with a court official telling the newspaper there would be no comment on why the trial was pushed back.
Human rights defenders have called for what they said were “farcical” charges to be dropped, the three accused of attempting to “pollute, damage and distort” a historical monument – punishable by up to five years in prison under Greek law. They were pinned to the ground before being detained in police cells for more than two days after waving a Tibetan flag and unfurling a “No genocide Games” banner during the ceremony.
THE BEIJING CONNECTION
“The protest itself must have lasted less than a minute,” said Free Tibet’s Jason Leith, a defendant. “Our aim was never to cause damage, and it is absurd to say that we did. All we had was a flag and a banner. We just wanted our voice to be heard in solidarity with all those oppressed by the Chinese Communist party.”
The protest came as the ceremony was being broadcast by Chinese state media, the defendants charging they were roughed up by Greek police who held them on the ground.
“There was neither destruction nor damage to the sites and the accusation is groundless and invalid,” said human rights lawyer Alexis Anagnostakis. “They chose the Acropolis and Olympia as symbols of democracy and the cradle of western civilization … They deserve praise instead of arrests and handcuffs.”
Greece has before been accused of protecting China, including blocking a European Union attempt to censure the country for its human rights record in 2017 with the Chinese company COSCO managing the port of Piraeus.
“Greek authorities, mostly for political reasons, are very reluctant to embarrass China,” Plamen Tonchev, who heads the Asia unit at the Athens-based Institute of International Economic Relations told the paper.
“Indicative of this cautiousness is its consistent abstention from any statements – and there have been many since 2019 – that criticize China’s policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang,” he added.
Polak said that, despite their disappointment, the activists not only remained determined to fight “this politically motivated and ridiculous case,” but take it to the European Court of Human Rights.
“The Greek state is in breach of its international obligations under the European convention on human rights by prosecuting this case, no matter the eventual result,” he said.
“China’s strong influence over Greece’s leadership and institutions should be worrying for all Greek people, who have a strong history and belief in standing up against totalitarianism,” he added.