Post by Andriani Fili, Managing Editor and Associate Director at Border Criminologies. Her PhD at Lancaster University explores the immigration detention system in Greece and records resistance against it.

Petrou Ralli
The view from one of the wings at the Petrou Ralli pre-removal detention centre in Athens

‘I trust the Greek police. You are the state’, Konstantinos Mitsotakis, Greek Prime Minister during 1990-1993 and father of the current Prime Minister.

Greece has been in a strict Covid-19 lockdown since the beginning of November 2020, during which people are allowed to leave their homes only after sending a text message to the authorities. On Sunday 7th March 2021, following a routine police patrol, at the Nea Smyrni square in Athens, observing the compliance with lockdown measures, police officers threw a citizen to the ground and attacked him with batons (which have been banned due to them being metallic). The video of the unprovoked attack was circulated widely and even reached mainstream media, raising a public outcry against increasing police brutality. Thousands took to the streets over the next days. While most demonstrations were peaceful, violent clashes between the police and the protesters erupted, leading to one police officer getting hurt. A video from that day shows police officers vengefully shouting: ‘Let’s go and kill them. They are finished’.

Many demonstrators were arrested and taken to the General Police Department (GADA), where they were detained. Shocking scenes of torture at the hands of the Greek police have been described by those detained there. These include repeated beatings while they were hooded and handcuffed, threats of rape and sexual assault, denial of medical assistance and even incitement to suicide. 

The same day people were assaulted and attacked by police officers in state buildings the Greek Prime Minister addressed the public and appealed for calm. ‘It should serve as a wake-up call that the life of a policeman was endangered’, adding, in another statement, that police brutality does not exist; on the contrary, Greece is facing a systematic retreat of the state before violence, in the name of the human right-ism of some. In these statements, like his father 30 years ago, he set the tone for the state’s authoritarian logic and complicity with police brutality.

Greece has a long history of particularly violent relations between the policing arm of the state and protesters. While the Greek authorities acknowledge the existence of human rights abuses by law enforcement officials, they class them as “isolated incidents” and routinely fail to acknowledge the extent and depth of this systemic problem. Telling in this regard is the statement of the Vice president of the Panhellenic Union of police officers following the incidents at the Nea Smyrni square ‘My colleagues were in for it because they are inexperienced. Just three truncheon blows and we are now on our knees apologising to the unwashed (απλυταριο)’. Previously he had described protesters as ‘antisocial toxic scum’ and ‘vampires’ that feed on police officers’ blood.

Notwithstanding its long roots in Greek society, the growing police violence the past year has been met with anger, resistance and public calls for accountability. In response, on 12th March 2021, the Ministry of Public Protection issued a statement titled ‘42 facts about police arbitrariness and excessive violence’. While they admit that previous police investigations of violent incidents involving law enforcement had been flawed, they claim that this is a problem of the past. The police, the statement makes clear, holds the monopoly of lawful violence in the name of security and public order. The increase in the number of complaints about this violence (according to the Greek Ombudsman, complaints have gone up by 75% the past year), it states is a consequence of three, unrelated factors:  a) the Ministry has been encouraging the public to report state violence, b) there has been more policing due to the pandemic leading to more tensions, c) a social media trend that sees every use of violence as arbitrary and excessive. The Hellenic police are not the only violent law enforcement body in Europe, the statement further makes clear, referring to cases from France and Spain. The document ends by promising more and better education for police officers. The Ministry also published a White Bible for citizens’ protection, allegedly in order to enter into a new social contract with the public.      

In most of the debate that has sprung up around state violence in Greece the past weeks, a significant issue has been overlooked, by all parties. The police do not just have the monopoly of violence against Greek citizens. Immigrants, especially those found inside detention facilities, have endured police violence for many years.

The warehousing and deliberately exhausting policy implemented inside the state’s detention centres and police stations, illuminates the scale of the problem of ill-treatment by law enforcement officials and the impact of the militarisation of the police (see also here and Fili, forthcoming). In these sites, violence by the police has been routine, systematic and cloaked in a climate of impunity. Most of the allegations consist of slaps, punches, kicks and blows with batons and baseball bats, as well as electric shocks. Sexual harassment and abuse also describe daily life inside Greece’s detention centres.

Recorded complaintscourt proceedings or videos of abuse which have received media attention do not reveal the extent of the problem. Our research has found that police often deny involvement in alleged assaults of detainees by hiding files of injuries and transferring injured people to unknown destinations to keep them out of sight and away from their circles of support. Under these circumstances, activists, human rights organisations and monitoring bodies have highlighted the fear that migrants experience that they would be subjected to further ill-treatment if they submitted any complaints. When charges of abuse were investigated by the authorities, the procedures were marred by many flaws, including the lack of promptness and expeditiousness in carrying out investigations (e.g. see CPT reports herehere and here); compounded by the fact that there was no adequately resourced police inspectorate. Nor was there a credible, independent and effective police complaints mechanism, which might enable allegations of ill-treatment by law enforcement officials being investigated thoroughly and, where appropriate, prosecuted rigorously. This is now one of the mandates of the Greek National Preventive Mechanism (read here their latest report on the investigation of arbitrary incidents).

Despite the sheer number of allegations of abuse and their consistency, successive Greek governments have failed to acknowledge the scale and systematic nature of human rights violations by law enforcement officials and entrenched impunity. In fact, the Greek authorities argued that while there might be some isolated cases of abuse by ‘rogue’ police officers, most claims were simply fabricated ‘by the detainees in order for their time of detention until deportation to be shortened.’ The official position of the Greek government is that the legal framework for the protection of human rights offers sufficient protection of detainees’ rights. However, the failure of the state, the police, and the judicial system to introduce the structural reforms needed to root out police abuses and to exert the political will to treat foreign nationals on Greek soil with respect and humanity document a consistent pattern of human rights violations.

Today marks 200 years from the beginning of the Greek war of independence against the Ottoman empire; a resistance struggle that has been abused by the Greek nationalist agenda, which depicts Greece as a proud nation unwilling to succumb to barbarian others. However, the extent of the modern state’s violence against symbolic others, be it immigrants, anarchists, or citizens resisting, leaves us with little but a long forlorn pride. For the past year, amidst a pandemic where we have all learned to piously wear our masks, we have only been able to see people’s eyes. It is high time we looked the truth in the eye and accept that the violence inside the Hellenic Police is endemic and will not vanish with more education or monitoring. This month’s events have made it clear that state sponsored violence will not be satisfied with harming only ‘undeserving migrants’ but ‘respectful citizens’ too. For those who have observed and resisted state violence for so many years, this is not news. It has always been at our doorstep and if we don’t act now, then when?  

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Fili, A. (2021). The Violent Hellenic Police. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/03/violent-hellenic [date]