In Greece as in many places, COVID-19 restrictions have brought about severe setbacks in terms of civil liberties. For so many years, civil liberties were generally expanding around the world, and were often taken for granted in liberal democracies.
Police brutality in Greece: part of an existing systemic problem
Under the condition that these would be strictly temporary restrictions that could lead to future liberalization, in a healthier and safer world without COVID-19, a large number of these constraints might be understandable. However, alongside the pandemic, we have witnessed the alarming rise of human rights violations across Europe, which calls into question the overall state of the rule of law and E.U. acquis communautaire.
In Greece, a recent incident of apparent police brutality against a civilian highlighted how overzealous enforcement of lockdown restrictions has added to the existing systemic problem of excessive and arbitrary force by the authorities. This has befittingly whipped up a storm of protest by both individuals and human rights organizations. In order to understand the context around what happened, it is first necessary to consider the current state of affairs in Greece regarding COVID-19 regulations and what we know about this specific incident.
The Greek government recently implemented a nighttime curfew from 7:00pm to 5:00am on weekends in Athens, Thessaloniki, and other areas with high infection rates, to combat the spread of COVID-19.
As a result, citizens have less time to travel outside their homes in order to get essential supplies and exercise. For both actions, individuals need to send a text message to a specific government phone number, providing the necessary information in order to get permission to go out, which in the vast majority of the cases is granted.
The incident in Nea Smyrni
A recent example of police brutality in Greece occurred following an interaction on March 7, in Nea Smyrni, part of the Athens metropolitan area. Here, many families gathered, perfectly legally and not in a crowded manner, around the area’s main square to get some fresh air before the 7:00pm curfew. Soon after, according to witnesses, police officers arrived and started to impose fines on citizens for unnecessary movement.
Among those who were fined was a mother and her two children who were sitting on a bench with two friends in the main square. They were in line with the legal requirements, being outside for exercise (actually walking) during a time of day that was allowed, and having sent the appropriate text message. Police officers asked them to leave, simply because “they said so,” but the mother declined to do so, since they were outside legally.
However, because they were sitting on a bench and not moving at the time the police arrived, the officers imposed a fine of €300, which is 44% of the monthly median income in Greece (according to Eurostat median income for 2019). This fine gave rise to protestations from other people in the vicinity, who argued that there was no legitimate reason for these fines.
So far, what I have described is what we know from the most prevalent version of events and comes from first-hand witness reports. What we know about the ensuing police brutality comes from a video, showing a man speaking to a police officer in the square, soon after the situation described above.
After their brief exchange, another police officer approached the young man and, out of the blue, told him he was under arrest, without stating any obvious reason. Nothing from what we saw or heard in this video justified the arrest and brutal unprovoked attack by police officers, who continuously beat the young man with batons. Anyone else who attempted to approach was also beaten.
According to a Greek MP representing the ruling party, the police report indicates that the reason for the arrest was that the young man allegedly tried to steal a gun from a police officer. However, it should be noted that this claim contradicts the video evidence, since prior to the arrest and the brutal beating, the young man was merely talking with the police.
Even if such an action took place before the recording of the video, it makes no sense that the police officer would have left the man alone after attempting to steal the gun, talked calmly with him, and only then tried to arrest him. The violence that ensued was undeniably excessive and disproportionate, going completely against what laws around arrest procedure dictate.
The systemic roots of police brutality in Greece
Despite the recent surge in high profile incidents, police brutality in Greece seems to be a systemic problem, rather a series of sporadic and isolated events. According to Amnesty International, the death of queer activist and human rights defender Zak Kostopoulos in September 2018 involved “four police officers, being charged with grievous bodily harm resulting in death.”
Furthermore, for the period between 2002 to 2012, “the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has found Greece in violation of Articles 2 (right to life) or 3 (prohibition of torture or other ill-treatment) in 11 cases concerning human rights violations by law enforcement officials”.
In 2019, the Council of Europe reported on “a series of judgments from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and critical reports from the Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee (CPT),” regarding cases of ill-treatment by Greek authorities.
Liberal democracy and the rule of law are in danger
During the ongoing pandemic, the principles of liberal democracy appear to be in danger. The rule of law seems to be in full retreat, not only in Greece, but in most European countries. Classical liberals should thus be vigilant against all increases in state control over our rights.
In the aftermath of the Nea Smyrni incident, the Center for Liberal Studies – Markos Dragoumis (KEFiM), published a brief guide attempting to address this threat, titled “Citizens and the police: 49 questions and answers about our rights and obligations.” It’s goal is to inform all Greek citizens about what police can and cannot do, as well as about what individuals’ own legal rights are.
As Alexander Skouras, the President of KEFiM, puts it in the preface of the publication: “A prerequisite of liberal democracy is the clear demarcation of the scope and rules of action of those in power” and, “as Thomas Jefferson warns eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” We must not drop our guard in defending liberty, especially during these challenging times.
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