• Rory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Greek government dissembles, misleads, over deaths and inhuman treatment of travelling people

The Greek government is in a trap of its own making: it is forced to spend its time lying to Greek and other people all over the world because of its own illegal behaviour, a waste of its, and everyone else’s, time and energy.


It would be best for Greece if its government did not consistently break the law and show – at best – a cavalier disregard for human life and decency. Failing that, it must stop pretending that whenever anyone mentions it, they are ‘attacking Greece’.


Mature societies face the truth of what they are, and what they have done, and work to make things better. Nea Dimokratia’s Greece is a very long way from any such maturity. It is time to recognise that it – its behaviour and statements – are a major part of the problem.

Greece’s Deputy Education Minister Angelos Syrigos has begun Nea Dimokratia’s ‘defence’ against Thursday’s finding by the European Court of Human Rights that Greece’s government, coastguard and courts violated both the right to life and the right not to be treated in an inhuman or degrading way, of 27 people.


The court announced its findings related to the deaths of 11 out of 27 people on board a boat ‘engaged’ by the Greek Coastguard off the island of Faramkonisi on 20 January 2014, and ordered the Greek government to pay a total of €330,000 to the 16 survivors for its multiple violations of their rights as set out in the European Convention of Human Rights.


In Greece’s parliament following the announcement and order – which, for what it is worth, not one single Greek news source has published in full – SYRIZA MP and former Minister of Education and Religious Affairs, Nikos Filis, criticised Nea Dimokratia (which was the senior party in the country’s coalition government, led by Nea Dimokratia MP Antonis Samaras, in 2014) for a policy of pushbacks, and said:


We [SYRIZA] will always go as far as we must to safeguard human rights.


Syrigos angrily responded:


I am asking you very much because these are issues concerning the international image of the country to be more careful. You didn't say anything about the decision. Shame on you for talking like that, it's a shame.


As far as I read the decision, it says that a proper investigation was not done. Don't turn an extremely sad incident into push backs with your own interpretations.


We’ll address the second part first. Put simply, what Syrigos said is a wild misrepresentation of reality.


Although the ECHR absolutely did criticise and punish Greece for failing to carry out a proper investigation into the deaths of 11 people, a part of that criticism was specifically that the direct claim by the incident’s survivors that the Greek Coastguard was pushing them back into Turkish waters when it capsized their boat, was dismissed without any consideration.


The ECHR noted that it was ‘likely’ that the Greek Coastguard had caused the boat the people were on to capsize, by travelling at very high speed in an effort to force it back into Turkish waters, but that this was impossible to ascertain because the ‘investigation’ undertaken by the Greek Court dismissed the travelling people’s claim that this was what had happened without investigating.


The Greek Court’s public prosecutor, the ECHR noted with anger, simply said: ‘there [was] no practice of pushbacks as a procedure for removal or towing ... to Turkish territorial waters...’


Even were that all the ECHR said, it would be a clear implication that at the very least the body believes a pushback may have been in process when the people drowned, and indeed that that pushback caused the deaths.


But of course, that was not all the ECHR said.


It also cited the decision to send just one speedboat to ‘rescue’ 27 people, and to ‘tow’ (if indeed it did tow) the boat twice, even though the Coastguard itself claimed (this was denied by the travelling people, who pointed out – and this was agreed by the ECHR – that the translators they provided did not do their jobs correctly and one could not even speak their language) that the first ‘tow’ had sparked ‘panic’ among the people, panic the Coastguard claimed ‘caused the boat to overturn’.


The ECHR found that the Court’s failure to properly investigate (including refusing to take into account the demonstrably true fact that the interpreters had failed to correctly translate the travelling people’s statements) was a violation of Article Two of the European Convention of Human Rights, the right to life, by:


carrying out an inadequate administrative and judicial investigation to identify those responsible for the fatal accident.’


But it did not stop there.


The Court it also stated that at the very least, the negligence of the Greek government and Coastguard led to the deaths – a direct violation of those people’s right to life. It found Greece guilty on this count, too, of violations of Article Two of the European Convention of Human Rights – the right to life, remember – on the grounds that even if (as the Coastguard claimed) the boat had capsized while being ‘towed towards safety’ the:


Greek authorities had not done all that could reasonably be expected of them to provide the applicants and their relatives with the level of protection required by Article 2 of the Convention.’


In fact, it went further. By casting significant doubt on the claims that the Coastguard was ever in any way attempting to ‘rescue’ the 27: the clear implication (though the ECHR has no jurisdiction to investigate this, and did not claim to have done so) is that the ECHR’s opinion is that this was a pushback in which 11 people were killed.


And to add insult to injury – or literally to add degradation to 11 deaths – the 16 survivors were then stripped naked and searched in an open-air basketball court, watched by 13 people.


In the course of this ‘activity’, the reason for which was questioned by the ECHR, the people were forced, while naked, to bend over and turn around.


The court found this to be a direct breach of the Convention’s Article Three, the prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment.


That is, the ECHR did not simply find that ‘a proper investigation was not done’ which, if Syrigos is telling the truth about having read the judgement, he knows only too well: either he directly lied to parliament that he had read the finding, or he directly lied to parliament about what the finding was.


In fact, the ECHR found that at best the negligence of the Greek Coastguard and government killed 11 people. It expressed suspicion that this happened during a pushback, it criticised the court for failing to investigate, and it found that the survivors had been subjected to degrading and inhuman treatment.


Which is rather more than ‘a proper investigation was not done’.


As for the first part of Syrigos’ response, many may recognise a familiar theme: that ‘talking about’ the ECHR decision should be stopped because it is ‘damaging Greece’s image’.


As in so many situations, including Iasonas Apostolopoulos’ correct and accurate description of Greek Coastguards throwing people over the side of boats while undertaking illegal pushbacks, and even in cases such as the expulsion from Nea Dimokratia of the MEP Giorgos Kyrtsos, for saying that the party’s attack on journalists as part of its Novartis case debacle made Greece look like ‘Hungary or Poland in the Mediterranean’, Nea Dimokratia’s position is that any mention of anything negative about Greece – or in fact in all these cases of Nea Dimokratia, which the party insists is the same thing – is an ‘attack’ on Greece and must be stamped out.


The truth is rather different. A healthy country is one which openly discusses its wrongs, and works to correct them.


And Greece should be embarrassed about this incident.


It should be embarrassed that the policies of Nea Dimokratia and its orders to the country’s Coastguard killed 11 people. It should be embarrassed that its orders to the court prevented even the most perfunctory investigation being carried out.


It should be embarrassed that its uniformed officers’ response to 16 shocked and grieving human beings was to strip them naked and publicly-humiliate them. It should be embarrassed because this was not an isolated incident, because it has a government which is doing all these things even now, despite the majority of its people being reasonable, decent, human beings.


And that, really, is at the heart of the problem. Because the fact is that what Nea Dimokratia did as the largest party in a Greek coalition government in 2014 is what Nea Dimokratia is doing now as the sole party in the current Greek government.


That is why Syrigos was rushed out to ‘defend Greece’ against the ECHR’s correct findings. It is why he pretended that it was wrong to talk about what was done, rather than to agree that what was done was wrong.


Because today’s Nea Dimokratia is yesterday’s Nea Dimokratia and it – rather than the ECHR, life-savers or its own MEPs – is what is attacking the reputation and standing of Greece.


Greece has a serious problem, and it is Nea Dimokratia’s actions and statements. Its policies and activities damage Greece every single day, and when one points this out, one is not an ‘enemy of Greece’, one is the country’s greatest ally.

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