ATHENS – In a damning report, Amnesty International condemned what it said was repeated instances of regular police brutality against protesters, journalists, innocent bystanders, and beating and torture of immigrants. The group said police violence was more than isolated incidents and said the government has tolerated human rights violations and that police are operating with “persistent immunity,” with few charges of any abuses.
The detailed 62-page report, released here on July 3, said that the authorities had failed “to acknowledge the extent and depth of this systemic problem” by classifying them as isolated incidents. “The number of allegations received by Amnesty International, along with those reported in the media, give a completely different picture to the one the Greek authorities refer to in reports to international bodies and various statements.”
Greece has been wracked by constant protests and riots since austerity measures were imposed on workers, pensioners and the poor more than two years ago, and the area downtown around Syntagma Square has been the scene of violent images, including people being beaten by police, flashed around the world and captured on cameras, videos and cellphones.
Amnesty underlined that “systemic problems persist in the investigation, prosecution and punishment of human right abuses,” and said it was making “urgent recommendations” to the government to ensure police exercise restraint and to establish “a truly independent and effective police complaints mechanism.” Many of the alleged violations the group said included torture and other ill-treatment during arrest or detention, misuse of firearms, excessive use of force and other violations in the policing of demonstrations. There was no immediate response from law enforcement authorities.
The trigger for nearly unfettered police assaults, the group said, was the December, 2008 killing of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos by a special police guard, who with a colleague confronted a group in the anarchist-ridden neighborhood of Exarchia. That set off two weeks of constant riots. Since then, Amnesty said, there have been numerous allegations of police violence at demonstrations, adding that many of these accusations have been “supported by an unprecedented amount of video footage.”
Despite the evidence, the police have remained above the law and not been prosecuted. It also noted that the frequent failure by riot police to wear the required ID numbers on their uniforms was “a failure which additionally contributes to a lack of police accountability.” Police also have been allowed to walk free under the statute of limitations because cases against them were repeatedly delayed and Amnesty said there was a failure by police, prosecutors and the judiciary to fully investigate or punish human rights transgressions by officers.
Especially at risk, the report said, were “members of vulnerable groups such as individuals detained for immigration purposes by coastguards, police or border guard officers.” Not even journalists were immune. An official from Greece’s press unions told reporters that the report was “important because we are also victims of police brutality,” and that journalists covering demonstrations were singled out by the police. A representative from the photo journalists union said an informal survey among its members showed that 46 percent had been beaten by the police.
Case studies were released as well, including that of Yiannis Kafkas, an unemployed psychologist and post-graduate photography student, who sustained near fatal head injuries when he was beaten by riot police during an anti-austerity demonstration in Athens on 11 May 2011. He was among a large group of peaceful protesters who were reportedly subjected to excessive use of force by riot police. According to his lawyer and the victim, Kakfas was hit with one of the fire extinguishers some riot police carry.
He said he found himself caught up in a crush of demonstrators fleeing stun grenades. “Riot police surrounded us from everywhere, left, right… it was really scary… when they surround you, they beat you, they spray you with chemicals and throw stun grenades at you, it can be lethal. The protesters were stepping all over each other because they had panicked and had no way out. (The police) beat us with such brutality!” Several other protesters who were injured, along with eyewitnesses, backed up his story. One said, “I feel very lucky that I came out alive from there.”
(Sources: Athens News, Kathimerini)