Desperate to keep the police on side, is the Greek government overlooking violent abuses?

Golden Dawn is having a field day while MPs from other parties are assaulted.

Desperate to keep the police on side, is the Greek government overlooking violent abuses?

On Monday night, Nikos Dendias, the Greek Minister of Public Order, was a guest on New Folders, a well known Greek TV show, presented by journalist Alexis Papachelas. A relaxed and slightly ironic Dendias, seemed to be having a good time deflecting all the serious questions D Tsoukalas, the SYRIZA MP who was also a guest on the show, threw at him. By carefully avoiding  answering  any and all questions, Dendias only looked anxious for two things: To not allow Tsoukalas to sidetrack him from his  immigrant-bashing  agenda , and to not displease the very same police force that stood by while a man was attacked outside a theatre, and , according to the Guardian, allegedly tortured 15 detainees after an anti-fascist demonstration a few weeks ago.

Dendias defended the police in every turn, going as far as to say that the detainees were lying and the truth would shine once the coroner’s report was out. That he was in fact in possession of that knowledge. “Why haven’t they filed for lawsuits if they are telling the truth? These are lies and I will bring the Guardian to justice for slandering the Police force and our country. The police is there to protect our citizens and is loyal to the state. Isolated cases of violence might exist, but they will be brought to justice”. He repeated the same claims in the Parliament the next day.

Little did he know:  on  Friday  afternoon, the coroner’s report was made available to the lawyers of the victims according to Avgi newspaper. Heavy bodily harm, extensive abuse, injury by pointed object (allegedly one of the detainees was “stubbed” with a taser, electrocuted to submission and then brutally beaten while still on the ground). The 15 people arrested two weeks ago stated that they were simply waiting for these reports, and of course they will file a lawsuit against the Greek Police.

A silence has befallen Dendias since. Trying to appear sympathetic towards the Greek police is not working well for him since they hang him out to dry  at every opportunity . By declaring that he will establish  a new task forces to “confront heavily armed criminals” (translating to extra pay for anyone who joins) and that he will try to deal with the fact that “their wages are stuck in the 60s”, he is trying to show that he and PM Samaras are there for them. He knows he has to, as  police officers' support is fast shifting from the government to the  far-right movement Golden Dawn. But the police is by now well beyond his control.

“50, maybe 60% of the police are with us now” Illias Panagiotaros (an MP with the Golden Dawn who participated in the attacks outside Corpus Cristi last week) admitted to Newsnight’s Paul Mason last Wednesday. Dendias, desperately trying to outflank the neo-nazi party from the right and win over the police at the same time, is failing miserably. His empty anti-immigrant rhetoric and his sucking up to the police, leads nowhere but to the complete loss of his ministry’s status.

There is no better indication of this than what happened this Sunday in Skouries Halkidikis. A  demonstration was called  to oppose the opening of a gold mine that would destroy much of the ancient forest the area currently enjoys, permanently gut the mountain and pollute the area extensively, essentially ending any hope of sustainable tourism growth, ended up being violently attacked and dispersed by riot police. The demonstrators were no hooded “anarchists” and “far left elements”, but concerned locals, who don’t want to see the natural environment around their houses destroyed. 

Reports started coming in late in the evening: Police had blocked the road cars carrying demonstrators up the mountain used. Passing between the cars, they started breaking windshields with their batons, and in some cases shooting chemicals inside cars. If this sounds like an exaggeration, this “isolated incident” should serve as an example: An elderly man was arrested (after being driven to the hospital with heart issues) and charged with attempted manslaughter. The reasoning behind this charge? When the tear-gas canister was shot in his car, the man lost control of his vehicle and rammed a tree, thus endangering other drivers. In another “isolated incident” confirmed by multiple eye-witnesses, a 55 year old woman was forced out of her car, made to kneel and then kicked to the point where she had to be driven to the hospital by other demonstrators as her knee had sustained severe injury.

Later that night, when people tried to help those detained at Polygyros police station, a police officer in plain clothes attacked Katerina Igglezi, an MP with SYRIZA, pushed her and hit her with his baton. When she told him she was an MP he shouted his name with defiance and asked her what does she think she can do about it, as can be seen in the video of the incident. She went on to state that she will in fact sue him.

But he, like every police officer willing to go the extra mile, knows very well that probably nothing will happen to him. Dendias will not seek punishment, as in other similar cases.  The police now operate well above the “laws of men”. The fact that Golden Dawn supporters reportedly attempted to intimidate locals  during an earlier set of demonstrations, is telling. Their excuse the fact that SYRIZA and other left wing factions support the locals, is of no significance. That they were present to defend capitalist interests once again, is.

El Dorado, the Canadian mining company, might be strangers to such controversy, but Greece certainly isn’t. For months Keratea resisted the opening of a dumping field next to their houses and the ancient monuments that populate the area. For months, riot police intimidated them, attacked them, brutalized them and made their lives a living hell. In one of the worst incidents, a pregnant woman lost her baby when tear-gas was used right outside her house and caused her to pass out.

In the meantime, Golden Dawn is having a field day while MPs from other parties are assaulted and common citizens are charged with extraordinary charges after being attacked themselves. Their own MPs enjoy impunity, never heard of before in a functional democratic state. Mr Dendias will speak again about “isolated incidents” if you put this question to him. But the reality of the situation leaves no doubt, and our government looks comfortable with what’s happening. Their unwillingness to reform the police is now more than obvious.

In the past few days, there have been rumours of a Greek cabinet reshuffle. In a decent, functional government, there would be no place for Mr Dendias. But in our current state as a country and as a people, Dendias will remain where he is. If he doesn’t, I am really afraid of who might take his place, and what  they would do.

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist writing on finance, politics and pop culture

Members of the Greek extreme-right party Golden Dawn sing the national anthem out of the party's office in Thessaloniki. Photograph: Getty Images.

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.