Xenophobes Find Police Protection in Greece, by Apostolis Fotiadis / IPS News

Xenophobes Find Police Protection in Greece
By Apostolis Fotiadis / IPS News

ATHENS, Sep 19 2012 (IPS) – Panahi Gholamhousein (22), an Afghan refugee who spends his days in a room that is barely five square metres with his wife Zarmina (18) and their 19-month-old daughter Zahra, has hardly left his place in downtown Athens since he was beaten up and robbed nearly a month ago.

Extremist sympathisers in the Greek police force breed impunity. Credit: George Laoutaris/CC-BY-ND-2.0
The four attackers “unleashed their dogs on me”, he told IPS. The incident shook him badly, confining him to an apartment shared with many other irregular migrants living in squalid conditions.

The young family – who lost legal status some months ago after withdrawing their asylum application to Greek authorities in exchange for a return ticket to Afghanistan – embody the predicament faced by many migrants caught in a rising wave of xenophobia.

The last three years have seen racist attacks dominating the streets of Athens, spreading fast throughout the country.

Some experts blame the situation on the social stress caused by an extended period of economic austerity – unemployment rates are fast approaching 30 percent and approximately 25 percent of the Greek population now lives below the poverty line.

Last Saturday at 2 a.m. a group of three unidentified assailants used an incendiary explosive device in an attempt to burn Pakistani immigrants alive in their home while they slept.

Navit Navaz was awakened by an explosion from a flaming bottle of gasoline that landed on the edge of the bed. Navaz was subsequently brought to Thriasio Hospital and admitted to the intensive care unit with severe burns on his back and hands.

Two months ago Human Rights Watch released a report describing how gangs of Greeks carry out attacks against migrants with almost total impunity. Authorities are reportedly ignoring complaints, or discouraging victims from filing them at all.

On Jul. 23, the rape and attempted murder of a 15-year-old girl in the island of Paros by a Pakistani migrant worker, Ahmed Vakas, fueled a wave of attacks against foreigners during which Iraq Aladin, an Iraqi immigrant, was beaten and stabbed to death by five hooded youngsters on Aug. 12.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), along with 20 organisations that comprise the Racist Violence Recording Network, blamed the deterioration of social relations on the “the inability or reluctance of the law enforcement authorities to carry out arrests”.

Extremists on the rise

Many of the attacks are allegedly linked to the neo-fascist party Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) that entered parliament last June with 6.9 percent of the vote and is now climbing even higher in the polls.

So far the organisation has not accepted responsibility for instigating the attacks but continues to endorse racist initiatives. Thus far, only two violent attacks have been linked directly to the party, one against four fishermen at Perama and one in central Athens that involved a Golden Dawn candidate.

According to migrant communities more than 400 attacks took place last year alone, but very few people have been arrested and none of the perpetrators has faced justice.

Opposition MPs and activists claim that Golden Dawn supporters inside the security apparatus breed a culture of impunity.

The problematic relationship between the organisation and elements within the Greek police force provoked close attention two weeks ago when Golden Dawn supporters, along with two of the party’s official deputies, Giorgos Germenis and Panayiotis Iliopoulos, checked legal documents and attacked immigrants’ stalls at a church fair in Rafina, a small town northeast of Athens.

As legitimate members of parliament these deputies have immunity and cannot be arrested by the police.

Furthermore, the local police director failed to report the incident to her central command for two hours and claimed that the deployed forces were not “strong enough to intervene” despite her own description of the incident as verbal abuse.

Victims of the attack have denounced police for turning a blind eye to their vulnerability and the police director of Rafina has been suspended from service.
However, a pattern of impunity for such officials suggests that she might soon resume her post, with the possibility of a promotion.

Golden Dawn has promoted the events in a bid to present itself as a force that guarantees the interest and protection of Greek citizens.

Nikolaos Dendias, minister of public order and citizen protection and commander of all Greek security forces, has stripped Golden Dawn deputies of their police protection following these incidents and allegations.

In a symbolic move the organisation responded by suing the minister and since then it has continued to challenge of state authority – despite allegations from activists that members of the police force and extremists are working hand in glove.

Effective control over the security apparatus by the political leadership is an issue of acute concern according to Anastassia Tsoukala, a criminologist at Paris University XI and former advisor to the ex-minister of citizen protection.

In a recent article that appeared on the local ‘TVXS’ online news site, Tsoukala argued that there is ample proof of mutually beneficial relationships between low ranking policemen and extremists.

“According to information in our hands from the last national elections, a very big percentage of the police personnel share the same ideology as the perpetrators of racist attacks,” Tsoukala wrote.

The percentage of Golden Dawn voters that work for the security apparatus was estimated to be between 17.2 and 23.04 percent in 11 electoral sectors during both national elections last summer.

This relationship is a “danger to the pubic order” according to Tsoukala.

Antonis Liakopoulos, vice president of the Association of Attika Police Officers, responded to these challenges with the assertion that the abuse of authority is a common phenomenon among police forces around the world, “but one should not generalise over these cases”.

The real problem, according to Liakopoulos, is the large numbers of Greek officers who have suffered major wage cuts, and security structures that operate on budgets that are inadequate to support their basic needs.

“This is what makes the police ineffective and unable to offer safety,” he told IPS.

“In a society going through such an acute crisis, wherever police and state institutions fail to exercise effective control, other groups see an opportunity to promote their own agenda,” he added.

Still, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, in a speech to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council last week, highlighted Greek police ineffectiveness in addressing and preventing “violent xenophobic attacks against migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in recent months”.

Dendias’ repeated promises to establish a special force to address racist violence are still pending. Prosecutor Ioannis Tentes has instructed police stations around the country to stop and, if necessary, apprehend members of the parliament if they become involved in unlawful actions.