A disastrous and unconvincing case of brutality and mismanagement by the Greek police

Conflicting stories and doctored photographs reveal clumsy attempts by the Greek police to conceal the degree of force used during and after the arrest of four anarchists.

As more pictures of the four anarchists arrested last week were published today by the Greek police, a new round of controversy has set alight the Greek and international media. In an attempt to prove that the extensive abuse the suspects suffered took place during their arrest and not later as they and their lawyers claim, the Greek police’s Internal Affairs department was set on the case. Their conclusion was that, according to eyewitnesses and officers, signs of struggle were obvious and that the injuries were sustained after the suspects resisted arrest, a claim Nikos Dendias (Minister of Citizen Protection) backed and repeated himself.

This new set of pictures (contrasted against the photoshopped versions the authorities shared last week, see above and below) was also released. According to the police’s official statement, these pictures were taken around 13:00, only ten minutes after the arrest took place. A phone camera and a small digital camera were used and the pictures were sent to the appropriate agency via email on 13:45 after a failed attempt on 13:30. The extent of the bruises on the suspects’ faces is truly appalling and inevitably a series of questions arises.

While the police claims that these pictures were taken immediately after the incident (which they place at 12:50) and also that they attempted to first send them to the appropriate agency at 13:30 and 13:45, the EXIF data (pdf) they themselves provided show that some pictures were not taken until 14:31. Furthermore, to add to the confusion, in the background of one of the pictures a clock showing 08:25 can be clearly seen. As if this is not enough, the metadata of the files shows that the files weren’t created on that specific computer until 13:53, which again doesn’t support their claims. But the metadata and EXIF data were provided in such a manner (PDF file) that they could have been altered with a simple word processor. This is not to say it was actually altered, but rather to point out that it's a mess and can’t be used to prove anything, just complicates the case even further.

Internal Affairs, after examining the reports, concluded that there was no torture nonetheless. It claims eyewitnesses to the struggle and officers that testified they saw the bruising as the arrestees were brought in and even claims a police officer was injured, a detail we only heard about yesterday, a week after the incident, not supported by a coroner’s report. But the testimony of one of the arresting officers offers much ground for doubt, as he makes no mention of the intense hand-to-hand fight the others describe but rather, a swift and clean arrest:

We’d realised during the pursuit that the driver was unarmed. On the contrary the other guy was holding a Kalashnikov. We didn’t know how many there were in the back of the van. When we blocked them and they were left with no escape route, I approached the passengers door, opened it as fast  as I could, grabbed the armed man, threw him on the street and we started wrestling.

Within seconds, I saw the back door sliding open and someone pointing a gun at me. Before he had the time to shoot at me, or his comrade as we were fighting, one of my colleagues hit his hand and disarmed him. That’s where it all ended and they didn’t make a move to escape.

So can anyone really rely on the police to investigate itself? Especially in cases like this one, the Greek police is infamous for its tendency to cover up incidents or stall cases to the point of scandal. For the period 2005-09, 281 cases of police brutality were investigated. From those, only thirteen reached any conclusion. And no one is yet ready to forget how this specific agency (North Greece Internal Affairs charter) handled the case of the severe beating of Augoustinos Dimitriou, a Cypriot student, by 8 police officers in Thessaloniki in 2006, before a video that proved his abuse was published. Then, as now, ministers and police officials had gone on record saying they saw no signs of police brutality but “sheer professionalism” and blamed a flower pot for his injuries.

The situation with Internal Affairs is so bad that a new agency had to be founded. The new division for dealing with police arbitration therefore came into being, unfortunately only on paper, as the agency is still inactive. Even if activated, it will still be under police management, and not an independent body that would secure some impartiality. This comes after a number of convictions in European courts and officials from Amnesty International publicly condemning the police for co-operating with the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn.

Before engaging in this panicked crisis management drill, the Greek Police and the Ministry of Citizen Protection ought to consider if these conflicting storylines and timestamps offer anything in the way of truth. By releasing these pictures without a coroner’s report that confirms their claims, they only offer more ground for doubt. And while trying to simply prove the suspects were not harmed after the arrest, the use of excessive force during the arrest is left wide open as a possibility.

For better or for worse, this has been a disastrous case for the police. Photoshopped pictures, half-baked excuses, lack of medical data and muddled information do not constitute the work of a serious and transparent police force. A government that backs them up nonetheless, while lacking evidence itself, appears as reckless and deaf to the reality of the problem. It is well established by now that torture and excessive force is utilised by the Greek police in the street, in holding cells and in prisons. By choosing not to deal with this, the Greek government renders its citizens hostages to the whims of a police force that is now a threat to social cohesion.

 

A before and after montage of the photos released by the Greek police of one of the anarchists.

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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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era