Police killing puts spotlight on anti-Roma racism in Greece

The killing of a Greek Roma youth reignites a firestorm in Greek media and starts a conversation about anti-Roma racism.

A family of victim of police shooting builds a memorial in Greece
The Sampanis family builds a memorial on the side of the road where Nikos Sampanis was killed by police four months earlier [File: Moira Lavelle/Al Jazeera]

Athens, Greece – On the morning of February 7, the Sampanis family gathered on a street corner in Perama, Athens, to build a small memorial on the side of the road where 18-year-old Nikos Sampanis had been killed by police four months earlier.

Nikos’ father and uncle stacked two cement blocks, covered them with white plaster, and fixed a small church on top. His elder sister Katerina sat beside them, crying, holding the hand of another brother, Georgos.

Nikos’ son, three-year-old Alex, toddled between his mother and different uncles and aunts. The family put flowers beside the memorial and a photo of Nikos inside, followed by a can of his favourite energy drink.

Katerina and Georgos showed Al Jazeera videos of Nikos at his workplace, fixing motorbikes and joking, his shoulders shaking with each laugh.

“He made many many jokes,” said Katerina. “Our family was not a depressed family. We were very happy, because of him.”

Shortly after the memorial was constructed, the family spotted several police officers in white motorcycle helmets watching further down the road. Katerina stood and began shouting at them. Other members of the family joined, yelling: “Murderers!”

“All of the police are racist, all of them, there isn’t one who isn’t,” said Katerina. “These police had a mania to kill one of us. And they found my brother. They wanted to kill a Gypsy.”

The incident

Nikos Sampanis was killed early on October 23, 2021, after a squad of Greek police officers on motorbikes chased a car in Perama and fired at least 36 bullets into the vehicle.

A 15-year-old passenger of the car was also severely injured, and a third teenager survived without major injuries.

In an initial statement, the police stated that they pursued a car that appeared to have been stolen, that the youths had reversed the car into the officers and injured seven of them, and the police had fired their guns to stop the vehicle.

However, when police radio communications were released, there was no mention of the car being stolen, the officers defied orders from headquarters to cease their pursuit, and they reported none of the officers had been injured.

And, the car chase began with the report that there was a car running red lights and “three people inside are Gypsies”.

The killing reignited a firestorm in Greek media, and reopened conversations about anti-Roma racism in Greece.

Days of protests

Aspropyrgos – a municipality near Athens where many Roma live – was rocked by demonstrations for days. The Sampanis family has demanded a full investigation into the murder and called for an investigation into hate crime charges.

The family tells of a lifetime of police harassment, detailing frequent traffic stops, ID checks, and trips to police stations.

“They stop us all the time, they ask for our papers. We give them and they still bother us,” said Giannis Pasios, Nikos’ uncle.

“Yes of course the police are racist,” said Giannis Sampanis, Nikos’ father. “All of the police are racist to Gypsies. They say we steal often. I don’t owe money. I don’t steal. I work to get a wage for my children.”

Thanasis Kampagiannis, the family’s lawyer, believes there is sufficient evidence for the killing to be examined as having a racist motive.

“The fact that there was racial profiling, the fact that there was defiance of the order, and then there was a disproportionate use of weapons indicates there should at least be an examination of what the real motive of the crime was,” he said.

The seven police officers have been charged with the murder of Nikos Sampanis, and attempted murder of the teenager who was injured. But they are not currently in custody and have been put on desk duty until the verdict of the case is announced.

“They are working now! They are free to walk around wherever they want. They can go be with their families,” said Katerina. “And us? Who our brother has passed away? Who will we hold? We who cry every day, and the children who won’t stop crying?”

The police did not respond to requests for comment on the case.

‘Social plague’

Alexis Kougias, the lawyer for the police officers, said the two surviving teenagers who were in the car with Nikos are being charged with the attempted murder of the policemen with their car.

He also said in a television interview about the incident that Roma “unfortunately in recent years are a social plague”.

Vasilis Tsarnas, a researcher at the Greek Helsinki Monitor’s Racist Crimes Watch, said anti-Roma racism in Greece is widespread and mainstream.

“It’s a prejudice shared by the majority, almost regardless of political identity,” he said. “This is normalised as most non-Roma Greeks do not even see them as Greeks or citizens with equal rights. Impunity for police violence, a common problem in the country, becomes almost absolute when the victims are Roma.”

Since 2005, the European Court of Justice has issued four decisions regarding the ill-treatment of Roma by the Greek police, finding Greece repeatedly in violation of the prohibitions on torture, discrimination, which violated Roma people’s right to life, and that in several instances investigations into crimes were not complete or effective.

The Sampanis family and their lawyer are concerned that the investigation into Nikos’ killing is similarly improper.

“It’s not just the fact that they have perpetrated this crime, but they are trying to cover it up,” said Kampagiannis.

Destroying evidence

Three days after the killing, the police returned the bullet-ridden car to its owner, who consequently had it impounded, thus destroying a key piece of evidence in the case.

Kampagiannis also explained that many of the bullets from the scene were not retrieved for evidence and that the police say the camera in the city bus on the scene at the time was not recording, and there were no other cameras.

When Kampagiannis produced a photo of a camera fixed on a nearby house to the investigative judge, the police said it also had not recorded anything that day.

On February 14, the Sampanis family filed a request for dismissal of the investigator, stating that not enough evidence had been collected and the investigation had been closed hastily.

In the Sampanis family house in Aspropyrgos, photos of Nikos hang on the walls. His name is written on the front windows of the house. Nikos left behind two children and his wife, Stasia, who is currently seven months pregnant.

“I want justice. I want my husband but where will I find him?” she said. “How can I feel? The children ask for their father all the time.”

Nikos’ mother Maria Pasios said she feels her son’s absence constantly, especially when his children ask when their father will come home from work. “All day I think of him, all day,” she said. “He was going to have a good life, but he didn’t have time.”

Source: Al Jazeera