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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder