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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle