Another Roma boy dies in police chase, marking grim pattern in Greece

Greece’s Roma minority demands answers after Christos Michalopoulos, 17, died while being pursued by police.

Greece Roma protest
A protest banner made by Christos Michalopoulos's friends reads: 'When the cops kill your children, then you will also go out of your cages. Christos, present' [Moira Lavelle/Al Jazeera]

Athens, Greece – Most of the mourners at the funeral were teenagers.

Christos Michalopoulos’s classmates, friends, and family gathered outside a church near the central Greek city of Thebes to bid farewell to the 17-year-old who died during a police chase on November 11.

Dressed in black, they clung to each other in silence, some in tears.

The air hung with a sense of shock. Several family members appeared lightheaded. Some fainted and had to be held upright or taken away for medical care.

When the bier was carried out of the church, a small crowd chanted his name as though answering his name on a school attendance register: “Christos Michalopoulos! Present!”

Michalopoulos died with a bullet lodged in his clavicle after being pursued by officers, marking the third time in less than three years that a Roma teenager has been killed in incidents involving Greek police.

Since that fateful Saturday, there have been protests, calls for justice and clashes with police across the country.

Michalopoulos’s loved ones say police killed him, a claim that has not been confirmed by the Hellenic Police service.

Amnesty International has called for a “prompt, thorough, transparent and effective investigation into the latest incident as well, including an investigation into a possible discriminatory motive”.

On November 16, an accused police officer who has not been named, gave his initial testimony in Thebes.

Michalopoulos’s loved ones waited outside the court for hours, chanting slogans with the cadence of football slogans that the boy remained among them, as they cursed the police and their lawyer.

“He was a very quiet kid, always smiling, he didn’t bother anyone,” said Chronis Kenzis, 17, a friend and relative of Michalopoulos. “He was crazy for his car, with his music, driving around, with all of this. And he passed away unjustly. Very unjustly.”

Another friend and relative, Panagiotis Chatzidiakos, 18, said he was speechless when he heard Michalopoulos had died. He said he and his friends face regular harassment from the police. He feels wherever he sits, wherever he hangs out, they will bother him.

“The cops are all racist,” Chatzidiakos told Al Jazeera. “And in this period, where they’ve taken three kids, what can I say? We’re afraid to move around.”

Kenzis said the police once stopped him and a friend at a local taverna and carried out a full body search on them.

“All of the neighbours came and saw us,” he said. “And here in Thebes everyone knows us, it travelled mouth to mouth and everyone heard about it.”

As they waited to see how the investigation would proceed, the teenage friends paced back and forth, anxious to see if the accused police officer would be held in custody after his testimony.

“We want justice,” said Chatzidiakos. “And for this not to happen again. We have to do something about this. It won’t just be three murders by cops, there will be others. And not only Roma, but also Pakistanis, Albanians, all of us.”

The accused officer was later released from custody after giving his testimony. He has been temporarily suspended from active police duty.

“All of us who spent time with Christos, these days we’re feeling horrible,” said Chatzidiakos.

The incident

During the car chase, officers pursued the car Michalopoulos was driving on a road outside of Thebes.

Michalopoulos’s brother and two other teenagers were passengers.

The Hellenic Police say the car was driving erratically, at high speed. They signalled it to stop, a warning that they say was ignored. The police report says officers chased the car until it hit a parked car and came to a standstill.

Officers say they then “approached the vehicle to conduct a high-risk check, during which the checked driver was injured after a shooting”.

The circumstances of that shooting are being investigated, the police said in their report.

The lawyer acting for the police officer who was allegedly involved has stated that it appears the teenager attempted to snatch the gun.

In his testimony, the police officer, reportedly said: “I was shouting for him to open the door, so we could check on him, I had taken out my pistol because I didn’t know who was inside the vehicle and if he carried a weapon.

“When I opened the car door, he tried to grab my gun. When I realised his intention, I drew the pistol and then I heard the click, I froze.”

The victim’s brother countered this in an interview with Greek television channel OPEN, claiming the officer hit the window of the car with the gun, pulled Michalopoulos out of the vehicle, kicked him, and then shot him.

A few days after the incident, a CCTV video that was filmed near the scene of the killing was released, in which the exchange between the police and the teenagers can be heard.

In the clip, the car can be seen rushing by with the police four-wheel drive in close pursuit.

The police officer can be heard yelling, “Stop! Stop!”. Then there are muffled knocking sounds, and within seven seconds, gunshots and screams.

Michalopoulos’s brother can be heard shouting, “What did the child do for you to shoot him? What did he do?”.

According to reports in Greek media, the autopsy showed that Michalopoulos was shot at close range, while forensic evidence indicates that none of his DNA was found on the gun.

The lawyer representing the Michalopoulos family has accused the police of tampering with evidence. He alleged that police washed the site of the incident, that police transported and cleaned the vehicle driven by the 17-year-old, and that they wiped the deceased boy’s hands.

At the time of writing, the Hellenic Police had not responded to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.

Alleged police killings of Greek Roma teenagers

The Michalopoulos family identifies as belonging to the Roma community, an ethnic minority that is heavily persecuted across Europe.

“We are Greek Gypsies, Greek Roma, we exist in many different cities. But here in Thebes we are all fully integrated,” Apostolis Michalopoulos, Christos’s cousin, told Al Jazeera.

The Panhellenic Confederation of Greek Roma has accused police of discrimination, given the other recent deadly incidents.

“How much more research is needed on dead Roma before we decide as a state and as a society to proactively and courageously face racism and intolerance so that today one more family does not mourn?” the group said.

Referring to two former police-led killings of Roma boys, it added: “A sin (Nikos Sampanis killed in 2021), which became a sin (Kostas Frangoulis killed in 2022) and is becoming a sin again today. Always for Roma.”

Both court cases against the police officers involved are continuing.

Sampanis, an 18-year-old boy, was killed by police on the outskirts of Athens on October 23, 2021, following a car chase. A squad of Greek police officers on motorbikes chased the car he was riding in, in Perama, and fired at least 36 bullets into the vehicle.

Initial police reports contradicted radio communications which were later released, in which officers can be heard saying that “three people inside are Gypsies”.

The Sampanis family has called for an investigation into hate crime charges, and their lawyer has accused the police of attempting to cover up the crime.

Kostas Frangoulis, 16, was shot by police on December 5, 2022, in Thessaloniki after police chased the boy in his car after he allegedly stole gasoline worth 20 euros ($22).

His death led to days of protests in Thessaloniki and across the country.

“There have been three fatal shootings of Romani teenagers in Greece in three years, and while that number is alarming on its own, Roma across Europe are unfortunately very familiar with racist and violent policing,” said Johnathan Lee, an activist and spokesman at the European Roma Rights Centre.

“We see the police as the blunt edge of a larger state instrument that does violence towards Romani people. … It’s not just the ethnic profiling and the harassment; every stage of the process is biased, or working against Romani people throughout the system.”

“I think a lot of people are going to rightfully view the investigation into this killing with a great deal of scepticism.”

Source: Al Jazeera