As startling images of Greeks struggling to get bags of free distributed vegetables make the headlines in the international media, it’s becoming evident that the crisis in the country has now overpassed vulnerable groups of people and is taking over the once thriving middle class.
Almost every family has been hit by the crisis and everyone has a story to tell about a relative or a friend who has lost a job and struggles to survive. Greek GDP has shrunk by 6.5 per cent in 2012 and Greece’s economy is expected to contract further in 2013 under the weight of the next round of austerity measures demanded by international creditors.
And while much has been said over the economic figures, on the fate of Greek democracy there is silence. With Greeks suffering under austerity measures with no end, and the country paralyzed by nationwide strikes, accusations of torture and ill-treatment by Greek police have multiplied.
Recently, Greek police have allegedly tortured four bank-robbery suspects that were arrested beginning of February in the north of the country. According to their families the young men, aged between 20 and 24 and allegedly belonging to a local terrorist group, were hooked and severely beaten during detention. While images of the suspects published by the media show extensive bruising, the police released photographs of all four, digitally manipulated in an effort to erase bruises and cuts, causing a public outcry.
The Greek minister of citizen protection, Nikos Dendias defended Greek police by saying that the use of Photoshop was necessary to ensure the suspects were recognizable.
This is not the first time that allegations of torture by the Greek police forces, make headlines. Last October fifteen anti-fascists protesters were arrested in Athens during clashes with supporters of the fascist party Golden down. The victims claimed at the British newspaper the Guardian that they were tortured during detention at the Attica General Police Directorate: police officers slapped them and spat on them, burnt their arms with a cigarette lighter and kept them awake all night with torches and lasers. The Guardian report led the Greek Minister, Nikos Dendias, to accuse the British newspaper of spreading lies and threaten it with legal actions. However, professional forensic examination of the fifteen protesters proved that the torture had indeed taken place. When, the next day, two Greek journalists commented on the Guardian report on the national television channel, they were fired.
As society’s crisis deepens in Greece, police brutality is on the rise. From the very beginning Greek citizens have opposed the austerity measures with general strikes, demonstrations and occupation of squares. The answer was excessive police force, tear gas, injuries and unjustified detention of protesters.
During anti-austerity measures protests taken place in Athens on May 2011, Yannis Kafkas, a psychologist and photography student, reportedly suffered an almost fatal head injury when a police officer hit him with one of the fire extinguishers that the riot police carry with them. He spent 20 days in intensive care and had to undergo emergency head surgery.
Journalist Manolis Kipraios, while covering June 2011 protests against austerity measures, suffered from permanent hearing loss after a member of riot police fired a stun grenade against him.
In February 2012, more than one hundred thousand people gathered outside the parliament, following the public suicide of a 77 year old pensioner. The protests ended up in clashes with the riot police amidst clouds of tear gas and flames. Photojournalist Marios Lolos reportedly received severe head blows by the police forces and had to go through surgeries for head injuries. The previous day, journalist Rena Maniou was also reportedly severely beaten by security forces while Dimitris Trimis, the head of the Greek journalist association ESEA, broke his arm after he was violently pushed and kicked by the riot police.
In other instances protesters were used by the riot police as human shields: a photograph circulated on the internet shows a female protester in handcuffs ahead of policemen as people threw stones against the officers, during protests over the October visit of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in Athens.
Of all cases, not a single one has been prosecuted.
Police brutality has a long history in Greece, and even the murder of teenagers by the police forces is not unprecedented. In 1976, two years after the collapse of the military junta that ruled the country from 1967 to 1974, Sideris Isidoropoulos, a 16 year old teenager and activist, was killed by police forces while putting up campaign posters on a public building. In November 1980, riot police has beaten to death 20 year old protester Stamatina Kanelopoulou, during a demonstration to commemorate the 1973 uprising against the military junta. Five years later, in 1985, 15 year old Michalis Kaltezas, was shot in the head by a policeman during clashes following protests in Athens. The police officer was acquitted of the charges. In December 2008 a police officer shot dead 15 year old Alexis Grigoropoulos, during demonstrations in Athens downtown. According to eye witness the police officer took aim at the boy and shot him at the chest. The murder of the 15 year old sparkled nationwide riots in the country. Unlike other cases that went unpunished, the police officer was convicted of murder for the shooting of the teenager.
What makes the situation in Greece even more alarming is the fact that most cases of excessive police and state brutality go unreported. As the majority of Greek media are owned by the country’s oligarch families that control the financial sector and have strong ties with local politicians, journalists prefer to keep quiet in the interests of holding on to their pay cheques.
Recently, a reporter working for the investigative journalism magazine Unfollow, received death threats by a man who identified himself as oil magnate Dimitris Melissanidis, after publishing a report on an oil smuggling scandal implicating Melissanidis company Aegean Oil. The death threats made against the journalist, received very little coverage in local media.
As Greece descends into further chaos amid mounting social and political tensions, democracy is in peril in the land that its own concept was born.
The European political and economic elites fail to understand that democracy and social justice, values upon which the concept of the European Union was built, are now being undermined by unilateral imposition of severe social cuts and wages slashes that impoverish nations and give rise to extremism and chaos. The Greek coalition government fails its own people and is unable to ensure justice and basic rights for its citizen.
What meaningful choices are left for the people? This seems to be the question that no one can answer in Greece any more.
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