Did Greece use excessive force on austerity protesters?
by Eva CossÚ
The challenges faced by the government should not be used to justify abuses on the streets – but that is the accusation facing the police
I have been riveted by the anti-austerity protests in Athens, my hometown, and the government's response. From Paris - my adopted city - I watch the news, follow the tweets, and speak with family and friends.
The protests began in mid-May as a peaceful occupation of Athen's Syntagma Square in front of the Greek parliament. But the rising anger over the government's austerity measures in response to the country's financial crisis led to violent confrontations between a small group of demonstrators and the police, prompting an often heavy-handed and indiscriminate response. The demonstrations peaked on June 28 and 29, when parliament narrowly approved the new austerity measures. Tens of thousands of protesters responded to a call from the self-styled "indignant movement" to encircle the parliament and stay in the streets for 48-hours. On the afternoon of June 28, a small group of protesters tried to break through a police cordon, heightening the tension.
The following day - as parliament approved the austerity package - police responded to rioters who were throwing bottles, rocks, and Molotov cocktails at them with indiscriminate force against the protesters. The police repeatedly fired large amounts of tear gas into the crowds, including in the entrance to the metro station at Syntagma Square - where many protesters had sought refuge. One of these protesters was my mother, and I was concerned for her health. After I finally reached her by telephone in the afternoon, the first words she said were: "The police are acting as if we are at war. They haven't stopped throwing tear gas since this morning. Now we are in the metro station but they are throwing teargas in the entrance and it's asphyxiating here."
Credible accounts from civil society activists, media reports, photographs and videos suggest that police also beat people who were not involved in the violence. Media reports were full of protesters complaining about the violence and asking for help. Although violent clashes between protesters and police, and allegations of police abuse, are nothing new in Greece - the crackdown in Syntagma square provoked widespread indignation. According to Greek Red Cross volunteers in Syntagma square, more than 500 people were injured or suffered respiratory problems. The image of the police using tear gas against a crowd of elderly people, students and couples with children is now deeply engraved in the public mind.
While the Greek mainstream media focused mostly on violence by rioters and the impact on property and the tourism industry, many citizens are asking deeper questions. What instructions, if any, did the Citizens' Protection Ministry give police about how to respond to the protests? What lessons have been learned from the policing operation? Will police officers who used excessive force be held to account? The Assembly of Bar Association Presidents and the Athens Medical Association are among those in Greece who have publicly questioned the excessive use of force by the police against the demonstrators, while the president of the Association of Pharmacists of Attica described the indiscriminate use of tear gas as "criminal" and complained to the prosecutorial authorities.
The police have a duty to respond when protesters use violence and that may include using force. In accordance with United Nations rules for law enforcement officials, police should insofar as possible apply non-violent means before resorting to force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, police should use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. To prevent abuse, the use of force by police has to be tightly controlled and those who exceed it held to account.
That's why the July 1 decision by an Athens public prosecutor to open an investigation into the excessive use of force by the police is a good step. In parallel, though, the Citizens' Protection Minister should order an immediate review of police tactics during demonstrations, particularly the use of tear gas, to ensure that future operations do not result in similar abuse. Protests against the austerity measures, like the economic crisis itself, will not be over any time soon. But the challenges faced by the government should not be used to justify abuses. Instead, the administration should demonstrate in its words and actions that it remains committed to the rights to freedom of speech and assembly - including the right to protest peacefully.
Eva CossÚ monitors Greece for Human Rights Watch