Greek police in Athens have fought street battles with youths protesting against an incident of police violence that prompted widespread condemnation and put policing under the spotlight.
More than 5,000 people marched on Tuesday in the capital’s Nea Smyrni neighbourhood amid an uproar after a video on social media showed a police officer in the same area beating a young man with a baton during a patrol on Sunday to check that people were following coronavirus restrictions.
Reports said clashes broke out after a group of some 200 masked protesters headed towards the police station in Nea Smyrni, a typically calm Athens suburb.
Police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse the youths who hurled Molotov cocktails and rocks at them, setting rubbish bins alight.
Television footage showed a police officer lying on the ground. He was later taken to hospital with a head injury, Greek media reported.
Police reportedly said some protesters had been arrested even before the clashes broke out for possession of Molotov cocktails and iron bars.
Journalists and photographers at the scene also came under attack by the protesters, reports said.
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Earlier, protesters marched holding banners, some of which read “cops out of our neighbourhoods” and “parks are for laughing, not for hearing the words ‘I’m in pain'”.
The latter was a reference to the viral video footage showing the young man shouting “I’m in pain” as he was beaten on Sunday at the Nea Smyrni square, a popular spot for family gatherings.
Onlookers can be heard in the footage expressing outrage at the police officer behaving this way in front of their children.
The incident sparked fury among opposition politicians and others who blasted it as an unprovoked act of police violence.
“The country has a government that has totally lost control of the pandemic, and the only thing it knows how to do, according to the plan, is to use a heavy hand,” said former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of the leftwing Syriza party.
Prosecutors have ordered a preliminary investigation into the beating, according to a legal source. Police have also opened an internal probe into the officer filmed hitting the man.
Tensions between protesters and Greek police have been mounting in the past months along with the start of the pandemic. Human rights activists have been decrying restrictions and bans placed on protests, as well as the treatment of protesters, journalists, and lawyers at the hands of the police.
In July, 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.
In a brief televised statement, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the violence seen on Tuesday must end.
He did not address Sunday’s beating, but referring to the injured policeman, he called for restraint: “I am addressing young people, who are destined to create and not to destroy. Blind rage does not lead anywhere.”