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Greek government defends how riots are being handled

Thursday, December 11, 2008

(Photo)
Bela Szandelszky ~ Associated Press
A Greek rioter prepares to throw a Molotov cocktail at police Wednesday in Athens, Greece. The Greek capital saw a fifth day of rioting following the fatal shooting of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos on Saturday night.
ATHENS, Greece -- Five days of rioting that saw bands of youths marauding through the streets has led many in the generally tolerant Greek public to question how the situation was allowed to degenerate. The police and government are now under scrutiny, despite saying they went out of their way to avoid bloodshed.

The government, which also faced a general strike Wednesday, said it has acted in the public's best interests, safeguarding lives over property amid an unprecedented explosion of rage sparked by the shooting death by police of a 15-year-old in one of Athens' often volatile neighborhoods.

The two officers involved in the shooting were quickly arrested, charged and ordered jailed.

The government sought to show it was trying to act with restraint when it came to dealing with the protesters.

"Human life is top priority. Property comes next," Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos said during the worst of the rioting Monday, as masked youths overturned cars, erected blazing barricades across city streets and smashed stores at will.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, whose conservatives are holding power with a single -seat majority in the 300-member Parliament, is under threat. Already on the ropes after a series of financial scandals and widespread opposition to unpopular economic, pension and education reforms, the riots could be his undoing.

The general strike shut down schools, public services, hospitals and airline flights, increasing the pressure on Karamanlis.

To try to reassure businesses, Karamanlis pledged financial aid to those who lost property in the riots -- cash payments of $12,800, delays in tax payments and three-month guarantees for employee salaries.

It is unclear if that will satisfy the public.

"Society is frightened, but also angry at the rioters, the looters and the government," said political science professor Haris Papasotiriou of Athens' Pantion University. "They demand a more dynamic response [to the riots] and better policing."

Separate opinion polls published Wednesday, before the financial aid package was made public, showed 68 percent of Greeks disapproved of the government's handling of the crisis, and gave a nearly 5 percentage-point lead to the opposition party, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement.

"This country is not being governed," senior socialist party member Evangelos Venizelos said in Parliament. "There is no way Mr. Karamanlis can come back from this."

But Karamanlis has ignored calls for early elections.

The exact circumstances of the death of the youth, Alexandros Grigoropoulos, are disputed. But one thing is clear: the boy was killed in a shooting by police, who have often been accused of heavy-handed tactics.

Alexis Cougias, a lawyer for one of the policemen, told reporters that a ballistics examination showed that the teen was killed by a ricochet and not a direct shot. One officer said he had fired warning shots but did not shoot directly at the boy.

"Because he fired in the air to save his life, as a result of this accident ... he faces family and personal ruin," Cougias said of the officer.

Still, students joined masked youths in the riots, chanting that favorite Greek slogan: "Cops! Pigs! Murderers!"

So authorities wanted to avoid forceful police tactics.

But that has been of little comfort to shop owners, who saw their businesses go up in flames.

"Nobody seems to care about the employees at the burnt shops. What will their fate be now over the Christmas season?" asked one shop assistant on the popular Ermou shopping street who would only give her first name, Eleni.

Although riot police fired tear gas, they did so mainly when attacked themselves and did not intervene when businesses were torched.

Soon, local media were reporting instances of enraged civilians confronting looters.

Violence is nothing new in Greece's frequent demonstrations, where the right to protest is considered an intrinsic part of democracy. The student uprising in 1973 against the 1967-74 military dictatorship has gained near mythical status.

Despite general public grumbling, the occasional Molotov cocktail and tear gas volley during a protest march is considered normal. Groups of youths march under the black-and-red anarchist flag, with the gasoline bombs in their backpacks.

But the unprecedented scale of destruction has horrified Greeks. The conservative daily, Eleftheros Typos, lamented that the very foundation of the country's democracy was at risk.

"What we have been living these days is the revelation of how imperfect and deeply wounded is the democracy for which we brag about," it said in an editorial, which accused police of being incapable of dealing with the riots.

The paper's front page bore a single quote from the ancient Greek rhetorician Isocrates: "Our democracy is self-destructing, because it abused the right to freedom and equality, because it taught people to consider impudence as a right, illegality as freedom, rudeness as equality and anarchy as happiness."

After the near anarchy of Monday night, when the centers of several cities were essentially taken over by masked youths, the level of violence lessened. By Wednesday night, relative calm had returned to most areas.

But the streets surrounding university campuses, particularly in Athens and Greece's second-largest city of Thessaloniki, still simmered with tension.

Under Greek law, police are barred from entering universities -- a regulation that gives the self-styled anarchists and rioters a safe base from which to prepare and launch their attacks and stockpile gasoline bombs.

Papasotiriou, the political scientist, argued that until this sometimes zealously guarded right to "university asylum" is abolished, occasional outbursts of violence will continue.

"The linchpin to the rioters' tactics is the asylum provided by universities. If it were to be abolished, things would be very different," he said.


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