Greece: Activists, journalists decry crackdown on protests

Blanket bans on protests that restrict freedom of expression and assembly cannot be justified, rights groups said.

Protesters clashed with police on November 17, the anniversary of the 1973 Athens Polytechnic uprising tragedy [Costas Baltas/Reuters]

Athens, Greece – Concerns have been growing in recent months about the restrictions and bans placed on protests in Greece, as well as the treatment of protesters, journalists, and lawyers at the hands of the police.

In July, as the coronavirus pandemic remained a threat, the Greek parliament passed a bill restricting protests – including outright bans – if they are deemed a threat to public safety.

The new law, which also holds protest organisers legally accountable for damage inflicted by protesters, was condemned by groups such as Amnesty International as well as the Athens bar association and the parliament’s own legislative review committee.

Months later, in November, as the world battled second waves of infections, another coronavirus lockdown was reintroduced on Greece.

Now, people in Greece can only move outside for one of six reasons – including individual exercise and essential shopping. Attending a protest is not included in the reasons.

‘Double standards’

Policing protests in Greece has been an ongoing issue of concern with rising reports of police brutality against protesters as well as the use of tear gas and water cannon.

The first ban on demonstrations came into effect ahead of November 17, the day Greece usually remembers the 1973 anti-junta revolt, in which 24 students of the Athens Polytechnic were killed when a tank crashed the gates of the university.

Protesters flee tear gas and water cannon during clashes with riot police, as the Greek government banned the annual march to mark the anniversary of a 1973 student revolt against the then-military government due to the coronavirus pandemic, in Athens, on November 17 2020 [File: Costas Baltas/Reuters]

More than 6,000 police were deployed to Athens on the day this year. There were reports that journalists were harassed and one woman received a 300-euro fine for trying to lay a flower at the Polytechnic in a tribute to the victims , although this was later rescinded after extensive media coverage.

Nick Papageorgiou was arrested for protesting on the day, along with members of the Communist Party. He said he attended a socially-distanced protest with masks which was made up of approximately 1,500 people.

Police tear-gassed the crowd and he was taken to the police station in central Athens with about 40 others.

But while the state has cracked down on protests ostensibly to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Papageorgiou claims that there is a double standard at play.

“There was absolutely no [distancing] measures and we were more than 47 people in that small room,” he said.

On the same day, Greek journalist Tony Rigopoulos recounted an alleged violent attack on a “peaceful” demonstration by the Communist Party.

He was fined by police for wearing a gas mask to protect himself from the tear gas, instead of a surgical one.

Police, he said, did not take into account his role documenting the protest, and refused to look at his press ID.

In a blog post, Rigopoulos said the anger at those who defied the ban “cannot justify the unacceptable police brutality” against protesters and journalists.

Exaggerated response by police

Little more than a week later, on November 25, nine women, including an Amnesty International staff member, were arrested for taking part in a protest to mark the Day of the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

“The nine women, including an Amnesty International member of staff, were wearing masks and observing physical distancing rules during their protest, so it is unclear why they face criminal charges for breaching public health rules and fines,” said Nils Muiznieks, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for Europe.

The minister for civil protection later apologised for these arrests on Greek radio and said it had been an exaggerated response by police.

On December 6, the anniversary 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos’s death, police stopped people from leaving flowers at his memorial. Those who did so were temporarily detained.

In 2008, police shot Grigoropoulos dead in Exarchia, the anarchist quarter of Athens.

A picture of a teenaged Grigoropoulos, who was killed in a police shooting December 6, 2008, is seen at an impromptu shrine at the site of the shooting in central Athens [File: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Photo]

There were again reports of journalists being harassed by police and protesters being held with no social distancing measures.

Victor Antonopoulos, a journalist for Athens 984 public radio, told Al Jazeera he saw police pushing reporters who had tried to cover the attempted arrest of some people.

“They started pushing and hitting us with their shields,” Antonopoulos said, adding that police threatened them and obstructed their work as journalists for several hours.

“We’re not in danger from the protesters most of the time but from the police.”

Petros Constantinou, from the anti-racist organisation KEERFA, was arrested at a socially distanced protest and said that doctors and trade unionists were also among those detained. Constantinou said he was later held at a police station with dozens of others and no physical distancing enforced.

“It was a fiasco, this operation by the police,” he said.

Thanasis Kampagiannis and Costas Papadakis, lawyers known for successfully prosecuting Greek neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn, were similarly arrested on the day commemorating Grigoropoulos, while acting in their professional capacity.

Police stopped people from leaving flowers at Grigoropoulos’s memorial; those who did so were temporarily detained [Yorgos Karahalis/AP Photo]

The Athens Bar Association released a statement condemning the arrests, calling them “unprecedented” action that “violates the essence of the legal function and seriously damages the core of the rule of law.”

After a video of a riot policeman destroying a bouquet of flowers at Grigoropoulos’s memorial went viral, the ministry for citizen protection defended the police force.

It said that they had protected the city of Athens on the day and that it was a “political choice” to focus on the actions of one police officer and not the 4,999 others, but nevertheless launched an inquiry into the officer who destroyed flowers.

‘Those who committed unlawful acts must be held accountable’

Manos Moschopoulos from the Open Society Foundations said that the events of December 6 set a “disturbing precedent”, adding that they “should be seen as a warning sign for all who believe in the freedom of expression and democracy.”

Lia Gogou, Greece researcher for Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera they were concerned about the nature of the ban.

“While restrictions are necessary during a pandemic, blanket bans against protest that completely restrict freedom of expression and assembly cannot be justified.

“Over the past month, Amnesty have heard many testimonies from protesters and other individuals including students in Ioannina [in northern Greece] who described how they were beaten and/or arbitrarily arrested by police during peaceful demonstrations or symbolic actions that had complied with COVID precautions.

“In the past, such police violence has been accompanied with an endemic and persistent impunity. This time the government must investigate and those who have committed unlawful [acts] must be held accountable. Criminal charges against protesters and legal defenders for breaching public health rules must be dropped.”

Source: Al Jazeera