Greece: Authorities abusing power to trample on right to protest

Under the guise of the Covid-19 pandemic the Greek authorities have used arbitrary arrests, blanket bans, unjustified fines and unlawful use of force to curb peaceful protest, new research by Amnesty International has revealed.

These disconcerting examples of state overreach took place at a time when people wished to voice their concerns over important issues such as unlawful use of force by police, gender-based violence and the significant problems in Greece’s public health system – hit by many years of austerity policies – at the time of the pandemic. This report focuses on the authorities’ response to several of these protests between November 2020 and March 2021.

“The Greek authorities used shocking tactics to try to scare women’s rights activists, trade unionists, members of political parties, lawyers and others who were participating or called for participation in peaceful protests in November and December 2020 after the country entered its second lockdown. Many were arbitrarily arrested, criminalized and handed unjustified fines in a blatant abuse of power by authorities,” said Kondylia Gogou, Greece Researcher at Amnesty International.

The Greek authorities have a responsibility to facilitate peaceful protest as Amnesty International outlined in November 2020. Restrictions to the right to freedom of peaceful assembly to curb the pandemic are permissible but must be subject to strict criteria, meet the principles of necessity and proportionality and assessed on a case-by-case basis. Governments do not have carte blanche to restrict human rights, even during a pandemic.

“Greek authorities justified blanket bans on protest and other rights violations by citing the threat posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Ironically, they then implemented these bans by detaining protestors in enclosed spaces, putting them at much higher risk of transmission.”

Curbs on peaceful protests were also codified into law in the months after Greece exited the first lockdown. Legislative reforms regulating demonstrations were introduced in July and September 2020 which allow for counter demonstrations to be prohibited and peaceful assemblies to be dispersed if organizers do not fulfil notification requirements. Legislation on the use of surveillance systems in demonstrations and its implementation also raise concerns including about a chilling effect that the use of cameras by police can have on peaceful demonstrators. These changes will have far-reaching consequences which will last long beyond the end of the pandemic.

Unlawful use of force at protests

Amnesty International found that Greek authorities failed to facilitate the right to peacefully protest, including by introducing blanket bans and dispersing peaceful assemblies through unnecessary and excessive use of force.

Maria* highlighted the sexist and abusive language and treatment that female protesters were exposed to during an attack by the police during a student protest in Ioannina on 17 November 2020: “From the moment this whole attack started, many female (protesters) like me heard (words such as) ‘Get down little slut because this is where you belong and never get up again’ …”.

Interviewees from a number of protests described how police resorted unnecessarily to the use of water cannon and chemical irritants against peaceful protesters. Some spoke of police hitting them on their heads with batons and using stun grenades in a way that could cause considerable injury including hearing problems.

Serious allegations of torture or other ill-treatment in police custody

Once in police custody some of the individuals interviewed by Amnesty International described being subjected to treatment that may amount to torture or other ill-treatment.

Aris Papazacharoudakis, a twenty-one year old protester said that he was tortured during his questioning by police in relation to clashes and injury of a police officer that took place during a demonstration against police violence on 9 March 2021: “…(T)hey asked me to talk about the place from where they took me (and) where my (political) collective was hosted…, and as long as I did not respond I was beaten up more…They were throwing me from my chair, they were lifting me from my handcuffs (and) I felt that my shoulders would dislocate… It (was) a process of non-stop beating….”.

Golden Dawn

At one protest in Ioannina some protesters said that riot police identified themselves as being members of the far-right Golden Dawn party. In a landmark ruling last October a court found the party’s political leadership guilty of running a criminal organization.

Giorgos* who sustained a series of injuries during a student protest in Ioannina on 17 November 2020 described: “…Some police officers even said ‘I belong to Golden Dawn, you are dead’…At some point, I had fallen on the ground… before I got up, they threw stun grenades right at us… I gave a mighty scream because the (stun grenade) exploded before my eyes and next to my left ear… (They) threw me on the ground and got me to a spot a little further away behind all the other students and a little bit away the cameras and there were five to six police officers who were beating me up…’”.

“The Greek authorities must halt the criminalization of peaceful assembly and annul any fines given to peaceful protesters, lawyers and women’s rights activists and those other individuals who were arbitrarily arrested prior and during the November and December 2020 demonstrations. Any charges against them for allegedly breaching public health rules must be dropped and prompt and thorough investigations must also be conducted into all the cases of human rights violations Amnesty International has documented,” said Kondylia Gogou.