Greek activists warn of increasing police brutality and human rights abuses

Greece has seen an alarming rise in police violence, amid reports of unprovoked attacks by officers that have seen protesters beaten with batons and people strip-searched in broad daylight.

Human rights groups, commentators and the country’s leftist opposition have deplored what is increasingly being viewed as the deployment of excessive force by the authorities. Despite a widespread ban in Europe, the use of plastic bullets has also raised alarm.

Amnesty International’s Greek branch described the increase in alleged abuses as “extremely worrying”.

Eirini Gaitanou, the group’s campaign coordinator, said: “There has been a sharp rise in such incidents in recent months and it is clear they are not isolated but reflect systemic problems in the Greek police with regards to violence and endemic impunity.”

The group has urged authorities to investigate the reports “in a thorough, independent and impartial manner”.

Incidents of police brutality, captured on video and uploaded on social media, have increased markedly since the centre-right New Democracy party led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis ousted Alexis Tsipras’s leftist Syriza in July.

Elected on a tough law-and-order platform with promises to take on radical leftwing and refugee-occupied squats in anarchist enclaves such as Exarchia in central Athens, Mitsotakis’s government appears to have given free reign to security forces.

Clashes between students and riot police have increased since August when the governing conservative party launched the crackdown by repealing a law that had banned police from entering university grounds, and that had been regarded as sacrosanct in a country that has experienced military-led dictatorship.

For generations of leftwing students campus asylum had been a hard-won right instituted after the collapse in 1974 of years of brutal dictatorship that was precipitated by the Athens Polytechnic uprising that ended in bloodshed.

But Mitsotakis has accused Syriza of cultivating a climate of lawlessness and has argued that immunity to police had been abused with campuses invariably turned into drug dens and bomb-making factories. Extensive damage to banks and private properties was, he claimed, often the price of such a liberal environment.

But the Greek prime minister’s uncompromising stance has also resulted in a series of human rights violations, say critics.

This month, without prior notice or a warrant, special forces stormed into a private home in Koukaki – an Athens neighbourhood within walking distance of the Acropolis – on the premise it was adjacent to a squat they intended to evict.

Dimitris Indares, a renowned Greek film director and the property’s owner, was arrested, tied up and injured. The incident triggered outrage with a public prosecutor ordering an investigation. The ruling New Democracy party hit back – alleging police had acted with a warrant.

But later that same day a woman was reportedly wounded by a plastic bullet when police raided another squat. She was hospitalised with serious chest injuries, according to doctors.

As anarchists burned down a Christmas tree in Exarchia in protest, opposition media carried reports of riot police being caught on camera cradling MR-35 punch guns. The impact from the weapon, which fires 35mm rubber balls, is said to be “non-lethal” but tantamount to a punch by former world heavyweight champion Mike Tyson.

In an act of solidarity with squatters, anarchists in Berlin occupied the diplomatic mission housing the Greek consulate in Berlin. The public outcry shows no signs of abating.

With Syriza MPs vowing to step up criticism of the current government’s public order minister, Michalis Chrysochoidis, once parliament reconvenes, the leftists have criticised New Democracy for pandering increasingly to its conservative base.

Despite heading the party’s liberal faction, Mitsotakis has also taken a tough stance on migration, bolstering border controls and announcing the creation of “closed” pre-deportation camps that refugee and human rights groups fear could easily become prisons.

Tsipras, who had previously kept a low-key line in opposition, has ratcheted up the pressure in accusing authorities of acting as if they were in “an occupied country”.

“The display of police violence is aimed at supporting barbaric politics and at repressing the reactions that it generates,” he tweeted.

Syriza groups describe the heavy-handed tactics as not only “unforgivable” but counter-productive in a society that even today bears the scars of a bloody civil war that raged between 1946-49, pitting the left against the right.

Reports have also surfaced of students being strip-searched at the behest of police.

In a now notorious incident, a first-year student, picked up by police as he waited at a bus stop in Athens, was taunted for hours by officers after being ordered to strip down to his underwear and socks.

A 19-year-old female student recounted how, unprovoked, she, too, had been set upon by police after attending a march to commemorate the 17 November student uprising at the Athens Polytechnic in 1973 that led to the junta’s collapse almost a year later.

The teenager, who has suffered serious arm injuries, described how she and dozens of others were taken to an underground car park on Bouboulinas, the street where leftists were routinely tortured during the military junta, and handcuffed on bended knee. The girl, one of 32 rounded up and arrested, told Greek media: “I thought I was going to die.”

The following day when the arraigned protesters were hauled before the courts, journalists described scenes of mayhem after a unit of riot police began beating assembled friends and relatives indiscriminately.

Yiota Tessi, a journalist with Efimerida ton Syntakton, one of the few opposition papers that has reported the abuses, said club-wielding police – for no apparent reason – suddenly began beating the crowd, including press gathered at the scene.

“In all my years of court reporting I haven’t seen anything like it. One policeman said ‘if someone spits at me, I won’t spit at him, I will hit him wherever I can, maybe even on the head,’” she recalled.

“What we are seeing is very disturbing because violence begets violence … and if it goes on like this it will evoke our dark past and nobody knows what that will bring.”

In response to the claims the government has taken the unprecedented step of setting up a commission headed by a professor of constitutional law, Nikos Alivizatos, who is widely respected on the left.

But it is far from assured that the step will succeed in calming emotions. In a letter penned to Chrysochoidis after the Koukaki raid last week, Alivizatos warned that the commission could not be seen to be “an alibi … for the unacceptable behaviour of police”.