As Austerity Bites Greece, Police Get More Brutal

A policeman sprays tear gas at protesters during riots in Thessaloniki December 15, 2010. Although violence has become a common fact of the demonstrations, the extent of abuse by police authorities in the last few months has begun to raise concerns among the public as well as within professional medical circles. (REUTERS/Grigoris Siamidis)

As Austerity Bites Greece, Police Get More Brutal

ATHENS - "The most terrifying thing is the memory loss. I can't recall anything after I was knocked out - and for a long time afterwards," says Nasos Iliopoulos. His features are tense as he narrates his violent altercation with riot police.

"We were gathered peacefully to protest the arrests made during a demonstration the day before," Iliopoulos remembers.

"Police suddenly pushed us back," he says. "Some of us tried to stand between them and the people out of fear that people would panic and get seriously injured." As a result, and despite having identified himself as the youth secretary of a leftist parliamentary party, Iliopoulos received a severe blow to the head.

"While I was lying unconscious, people asked for a doctor, but a police officer told them I could call for an ambulance after moving out of the premises," Iliopoulos recalls of the incident Dec. 7.

"I was very lucky that nothing critical happened to me - but I still struggle with the psychological effects."

Beginning last May, when Greece entered an austerity programme in exchange for a loan to help control the country's enormous debt and acute deficit issues, crowds have repeatedly taken to the streets to protest the measures in demonstrations that often lead to brutal confrontations with police.

Although violence has become a common fact of the demonstrations, the extent of abuse by police authorities in the last few months has begun to raise concerns among the public as well as within professional medical circles.

On Dec. 6, following riot violence, dozens of injured students were admitted to Evagellismos Hospital, located in the heart of the city. So many injured pupils were admitted that the hospital had to open its emergency quarters, says Panos Papanikolaou, a neurosurgeon from the Medical Union of Athens.

"That day, at least 45 people were seen in emergency units around Athens," Papanikolaou remembers.

"There were two cases of serious head injuries and minor brain damage," he recalls, adding, "Injuries are more and severer than before. Some people are not only beaten with batons, blows and kicks, but assaulted on the head with fire extinguishers police carry with them to blow off Molotov cocktails.

"The injuries we treat are the result of lethal force," he says.

In addition to physical injuries, specialised doctors have witnessed an increase in the number of people seeking medical attention as a result of encountering tear gases and other chemicals.

Olga Kosmopoulou, a specialist in infectious diseases, says that chemical methods of crowd control employed by police are leading to increased incidences of skin, eye, and respiratory problems caused by the toxic substances.

"Nobody has the slightest idea about the long-term effects of those substances," says Kosmopoulou, "But the frequency and severity with which they are used is a direct threat to public health.

"Furthermore," she adds, "one ought to ask if this aggression we observe is the result of lost control by police...or a conscious choice for increasing suppression.

"In either case, there is political responsibility for what happens on the streets and it lies with the government," says Kosmopoulou.

One indication of this aggression is the frequency with which plainclothes police officers show up in hospitals in order to identify beaten demonstrators and intimidate them in an effort to discourage retribution.

"Last December, doctors had to ask (the police) to leave... in order to go on examining people," says Papanikolaou.

"This is what happens in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes, not in a European democracy."

In addition to attacks against the citizenry, some members of riot police units are turning against journalists that cover incidents of abuse. Aris Messinis, an Agence France-Presse photographer in Athens, alleges that he was the victim of a targeted attack on Nov. 17 during a major demonstration commemorating the fall of a military junta.

"I was manhandled a couple of times that day, but I have pressed charges against was a sudden one by a policeman who seemed to remember me from before," Messinis says.

"Photojournalists are directly targeted by police on the street," he explains, adding that police "are trying to hide the abuses in which they are involved.

"They need to stop people, especially professionals, from taking their pictures," says Messinis.

Similar incidents have prompted Reporters Sans Frontieres to publish an open letter condemning police violence against journalists covering demonstrations in Greece.

"The level of violence employed by the police has been outrageous," the report reads.

"Journalists said they were thrown to the ground and beaten, or were prevented from working, by use of physical force. The police have also forced some journalists, including the Reporters Without Borders correspondent, to delete the photographs they had taken."

Last Tuesday, the political organisation 'Right' sued the Greek police mobile riot units DELTA and DIAS for what it believes to be an inexcusable assault during a Dec. 15 general strike.

In a press conference, George Papaioannou, a representative of the group, along with lawyer Kostas Papadakis, presented evidence that suggests that police used unnecessary force against members of their organisation.

"This kind of action is a direct violation from the government and police forces of the right of citizens to demonstrate," Papaionnou said.

"The kind of repressive methods employed lately is a message that anyone resisting the government should be afraid of the consequences.

This, he added, is "a violation of rights, and finally a devaluation of this democracy."

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