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Riots in Greece: Law, Order and the Police

JURIST Guest Columnist Dr. Maria Alvanou of the Hellenic Police Officers Academy says that the riots that followed the recent police shooting of a Greek teenager in a troubled district of Athens highlight major problems facing Greek police forces and the need for tougher legislation and implementation of laws against police brutality and abuses...

On December 6, a 15 year-old boy named Alexandros Grigoropoulos was shot dead by a special guard of the police force patrolling with his colleague in the Exarheia district of Athens. This tragic event led to student and youth protests that escalated into rioting and looting by anarchists in almost all cities of Greece.

More then a week later unrest continues, with Athens looking like a war zone. There seems to be no end to violence and there are serious political and social issues involved. Scandals troubling the Greek government, the worldwide economic crisis affecting the country, public institutions not functioning properly, low wages, problems with the education system and deficiency in society's values are part of the background to what is happening today.

The protests were started spontaneously by young people and school children, but afterwards a concrete movement of violent anarchists took the lead and started to target and destroy public and individual property of every type: shops, traditional buildings, police stations, houses, universities. The security forces of the country seem to be unable to react effectively and protect the citizens and their property. Some say the government wants to avoid a direct confrontation with the anarchists. After all this is why Exarheia (a central area in Athens) was made a ghetto where police action and protection was virtually non-existent. What is certain is that the Greek state is liable for damages and it will be called upon to compensate the citizens who will sue it.

The case of the young boy's death is now in the hands of Greek justice authorities. The two special guards involved in the shooting have been put in pre-trial detention by a decision of the investigative judge. According to their defence lawyer, the whole incident was just an unfortunate accident, while allegations were made that the dead teenager was part of a group of troublemakers and his behaviour was abnormal. Eyewitnesses to the incident, though - as well as friends and the school the boy attended - tell a different story. The defence line was severely criticised by the majority of the Greek media and Greek pubic opinion and it resulted in new violent episodes and the destruction of the defence lawyer's legal office. However provocative the defence strategy may have been, the fact remains that an accused person has the right to a defence and defence lawyers should be free to represent their clients in the best way they think with their institutional role in the justice system protected by the state.

The killing of the young boy has brought to surface many problems facing the Greek police. The issue of police violence is not new in the country, though the democratization that has occurred during the last decades has certainly altered the image of Greek law enforcement. In most cases where policemen are accused of torture and police brutality, court decisions seem to acquit the accused without investigating the truth deeply and without compensating the victims. Greece actually has a record of condemnations in the European Court of Human Rights for cases regarding abuse and torture by the police. Another issue is the lack of basic psychiatric-psychological evaluation of policemen carrying guns. In a characteristic recent case on the island of Lemnos a policeman suffering by severe psychiatric problems used his gun to hold his colleagues as hostages. In addition, special guards like the one involved in the Grigoropoulos shooting who have been incorporated into to the police forces lack the general education and training expected of normal police officers.

Greece needs to face this critical moment with bold initiatives on many levels. Tougher legislation against police brutality (and true implementation of that legislation with courageous court decisions), proper education of all policemen on how to manage crisis and determine when and how they use force, and police surveillance of all areas of Athens (with no ghettos) could be positive steps in this direction.

Dr. Maria Alvanou is a Greek defense lawyer and Professor of Criminology at the Hellenic Police Officers Academy

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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