The international human rights group Amnesty International today issued a new report accusing the Greek police of widespread abuses during the wave of street protests and riots that shook the country late last year.
The report, with its claims that the police conducted arbitrary arrests, physically abused detainees, and disproportionately targeted immigrants, is likely to reignite fierce debates in Greece about the limits of legitimate dissent and how much power should be given to police to ensure public order.
Nearly four months after the fatal police shooting of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos, which sparked the unrest, sporadic politically-tinged violence continues to haunt Greek cities. On Saturday, hooded youths rampaged through the center of Greece’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki, during the middle of the day, smashing shop windows. That incident imitated a similar one, earlier in March, in an upscale Athens neighborhood.
Banks, offices belonging to political parties, car dealerships, and even media organizations are attacked, bombed, or burned on a regular basis. A new term, “koukouloforoi” or “the hooded ones,” has entered Greek slang to describe the perpetrators, who often mask their faces to avoid identification and protect themselves from police teargas.
The goal of most of these incidents is to cause property damage – and to vent rage against those considered part of the “system.” And many Greeks, who have an instinctive distrust of the government and politicians, aren’t particularly troubled by images of public offices or international banks burning. Protest, even violent protest accompanied by the occasional Molotov cocktail, has a long history in Greece. What’s happening today is in some ways simply a period of increased intensity, fed by tough economic times and rising disgust at rampant political corruption.
But the current unrest has a darker side, with an increasing number of attacks intended to kill or seriously injure. In February, a major bomb was discovered outside a Citibank branch. It had failed to detonate, but authorities said if it had, it would have destroyed the building and likely caused substantial loss of life. Even the November 17 terrorist group, responsible for more than 100 attacks and nearly two dozen deaths before the group's was captured in 2002, was never guilty of such indiscriminate violence.
These more serious incidents exist on the fringes of the current crisis and are committed by a handful of extremists, experts say. Even most of those who participated in the December riots (read the Monitor's coverage here) condemn violence against people, but the extremists have been emboldened by the events of recent months. Many fear that they will eventually succeed in killing someone.
Many Greeks will likely be outraged by the Amnesty Report - there’s little love in any segment of society for the police. But there’s a growing fear, too, that the violence is getting out control and that the police are failing not because they are too tough, but because they aren’t tough enough. Lately, some have even begun grumbling that what Greece needs is another dictatorship, which would have been unthinkable a few months ago.
If the simmering unrest continues - a likely scenario given Greece’s ailing economy and the poor prospects for young people - those two contradictory feelings could heighten historic tensions between the country's left and right.