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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

'New' government, same abuse of the legal system

Just a month into its new administration, Nea Dimokratia proves that nothing has changed: the Greek legal system is a tool for attacking international NGOs, and the entire concept of human rights and solidarity, an entity to be abused by a prejudiced, wealthy elite.

One month after the Greek elections returned Nea Dimokratia to power as a majority government, despite winning just two in ten of the available votes, the party has shown that when it comes to attacking refugees and the people who work with and for them, it is very much business as usual.


The Greek police force, acting as a uniformed arm of the country's government, announced on Saturday (29 July 2023) claims that thousands of people have been 'trafficked' to Lesvos, and that at least one international non-governmental organisation has 'collaborated' with traffickers.


The problem is that even without the benefit of long experience of the government attacking men, women and children arriving in Greece, and those who work with and for them, reading through the police claims is enough to conclude that they are baseless, and indeed directly contradict international law and the UN Declaration of Human Rights.


For example, the police allegations claim that people are being 'trafficked' and then met by at least one (the report and allegations are not clear: on occasion it seems like one, at other points two, and sometimes as if a third organisation may be alleged to be involved) (i)NGO.


But (i)NGOs meeting people and taking them to reception centres at which they may apply for asylum simply and literally is not people trafficking.

We would go (and have gone) further and point out that, since it is absolutely legal – and indeed a human right – to travel and to enter a country with or without paperwork if one intends to apply for asylum or travel through to reach a destination in which one will apply for asylum, it is not even smuggling to provide places on transportation to enable that to happen.


It would be excellent if (i)NGOs were not needed to help people who have reached the Eastern Aegean Islands to reach reception centres on those islands. It would be far better if the Coastguard and Police did that. But as they have been ordered not to, and instead beat, rob from, sexually assault, torture and push back people who arrive on the islands, some NGOs have to do their job – helping people reach reception centres – instead.


It is in no way a crime, nor in any way evidence of belonging to a trafficking ring or working with traffickers to meet people from boats and help them enter the Greek legal system. It is ludicrous to pretend that it is.


(A second claim is that a total of 4,050 men, women and children arrived on Lesvos in 139 'groups' from 1 September 2022 to 30 April this year {the real number, at least of people registered as arrivals, so not including those illegally pushed back is very close – 4,061 people} and that the Greek Police {3,947 people, 135 'cases'} and Coastguard {103 people, four 'cases'} 'have filed criminal cases' against arrivals. If true, this means that literally every person to have arrived on Lesvos in an eight-month period has been criminalised by the Greek authorities, even though as we keep noting, it is in no way a criminal offence to enter a country and apply for asylum)


It is quite obvious which at least one of the organisations included in the police's list of unevidenced and incohesive claims is, but we shall not name them.


It is clear, however, that a number of local and international NGOs working on the island – an ever-decreasing list as the government abuses its position to make it impossible to operate (in Samos in December 2022, for example, MSF, one of the last remaining large (i)NGOs to operate on the Eastern Aegean Islands, and which has been consistently and correctly critical of the Greek government's increasingly inhuman treatment of people in its care, faced a series of 'checks' on the terms of its registration and the activities it carried out. Its doctors, and its lawyers, were consistently denied entry to the island's reception centre, in direct contravention of Greek, EU and international law) – are working both to cover gaps deliberately left by the Greek government to harm new arrivals to the islands, and to help those new arrivals avoid active physical and mental damage being inflicted upon them by uniformed officers.


These organisations are being attacked for doing their jobs. For assisting people to enter the legal process. For defending their human rights, and indeed all our human rights


That is, once again, Nea Dimokratia is abusing the Greek legal and judicial system to attack people seeking safety and the humanitarian organisations which work to defend human rights. It raises the question of why the Greek government believes these people are its enemies.


Before we attempt to answer that, we should perhaps provide a little background.


Nea Dimokratia's atrocious record on people on the move


a) pre-2019


Nea Dimokratia, Greece's current party of government, is regularly-described as 'centre-Right' but in fact has in the last 15 years been a consistent messenger and deliverer of far-Right, and indeed overtly racist, slogans and policies.


The party was in power when EU member-states ceased in 2011 to return people who had entered the EU via Greece, to the country because it was clear they would be treated inhumanely if returned.


The party was in power when, in January 2014, the Greek Coastguard attempted to carry out an illegal pushback close to Farmakonisi, during which 11 people were killed, and a further 17 were tortured by Greek police.


In the wake of the European Court of Human Rights ruling in July last year that the Greek uniformed forces (coastguard and police) were guilty of the killings and torture, and that the Greek legal system and government had failed to attempt to bring those responsible to justice, Nea Dimokratia members including Deputy Education Minister Angelos Syrigos openly lied about the findings and pretended that any mention of them was 'an attack on Greece' damaging the country's 'image' (as if the things damaging the country's image were not Nea Dimokratia, its prejudice against new arrivals, and the murder and torture of those people).


(We should note here, in the interests of balance and because our duty is to report and comment on outrageous illegal activity and unacceptable lies about the law, that Andreas Loverdos, formerly a minister of education and religious affairs for PASOK in the Nea Dimokratia-led Greek coalition government of 2012-15, also spoke against the judgement, entirely misleadingly claiming that it 'denied the right' of a country to 'protect its borders' despite the fact that no country has the 'right' to 'protect its borders' from civilians seeking safety, let alone by killing and torturing them, or illegally pushing them back. Loverdos also claimed the European Court of Human Rights was 'prejudiced against Greece')


It has spent the entire period since 2015, when the left-wing party SYRIZA took power, claiming that refugees are a threat to Greek lifestyles, livelihoods and lives, and that anyone entering the country without paperwork is both a victim of people trafficking and a criminal themselves – in direct contradiction of international law which makes it clear that one does not need paperwork to enter a country if one's intent is to apply for asylum or travel onwards to a country where one will do so.


b) post-2019:


i) pushbacks and killings


Since taking power in July 2019, and more definitively since 1 March 2020, it has reduced the number of people it registers as new arrivals in the state by brutally beating, robbing from, in many cases sexually assaulting and otherwise torturing, and pushing-back the vast majority of those who reach Greece (to Friday 30 June 2023, it had pushed back 60,820 new arrivals by sea, compared to 25,628 people it registered as new arrivals, a push-back rate of 70.4 per cent).


It boasted of these pushbacks, even as it claimed not to be carrying them out, and the policy's main author, then Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis*, and the man with overall responsibility for the government's policies, Prime Minister Kiriakos Mitsotakis, both claimed this law-breaking had 'improved safety and saved lives'.


In fact, the period of Nea Dimokratia's rule, and its pushbacks policy, has been one of rising numbers of deaths in and around Greece – from 71 in 2019, when 59,726 people were registered as new arrivals by sea, through 105 in 2020 (9,714 new arrivals registered), 115 in 2021 (4,331 registered new arrivals) and last year 343 people were killed, and 12,758 people registered.


This year, up to and including Wednesday 14 June, when 646 men, women and children were killed when the Adrianna, carrying 750 people seeking safety, sank in the Greek Search and Rescue zone, 698 people had been killed, and just 4,837 people had been registered as new arrivals.


To put that figure in perspective, 698 men, women and children had been killed after just six months and two weeks of this year, compared with 799 people in the whole of 2015, a year in which 856,723 people were registered as having arrived by sea: 177 times more people arrived in 2015 than in 2023, yet roughly seven-eighths as many people have died in Greek waters.


And not only have more people died in every year of Nea Dimokratia's period in government, and under its vicious and barbarian pushbacks regime, than in 2019, when it came to power, the death rate – the number of people dying compared to the number of people registered as arrivals by sea – has been higher than in every year including 2015, and has increased year-on-year under the party's rule.


That is, in 2015, 856,723 men, women and children arrived in Greece by sea. As noted, 799 people died making the journey. This means one person died for every 1,072 people who made it safely.


In 2016, 441 people died, and 173,450 people were registered as new arrivals. So, one person died for every 393 people who made the journey safely.


In 2017, 56 people died, compared to 29,718 registered arrivals – one person for every 530 people who completed the journey alive.


In 2018, 187 people died, 32,494 were registered as safe sea arrivals: one person died for every 174 who arrived alive.


In 2019, as noted, 59,726 people arrived alive, and 71 people died: one death for every 841 people who arrived alive.


In 2020, six times fewer people were registered as arrivals by sea – 9,714 men, women and children – yet the number of people who died rose by almost a third, to 105, a rate of one death for every 92 people who made the journey in safety.


In 2021, the number of registered arrivals fell significantly again, by more than 50 per cent, to 4,331, yet the number who died rose again, to 115 men, women and children – one death for every 38 safe arrivals.


In 2022, the number of arrivals by sea almost tripled, to 12,758. So did the number of deaths, to 343, meaning the death rate grew even higher, to one person for every 37 people who died.


And this year to Wednesday 14 June, 4,837 people were registered as having arrived by sea, while 698 people have died. One person for every seven who arrived in Greece safely.


To put it in one final way, Greek government policy – backed by the EU, certainly, but we must remember that on the election campaign trail Kiriakos Mitsotakis said it was him and his government who 'changed the EU's mind' about its response to people arriving in the bloc – has made travelling towards the EU, a fundamental human and legal right, so dangerous that the likelihood of death on the journey or by being beaten, raped, and pushed back by government operatives, is 153 times greater than it was at the height of the refugee response in 2015.


ii) 2023 Election campaign and beyond


Speaking of the election campaign, we should note that in the aftermath of the Adrianna sinking – an incident which at best was caused by Greek government policies (including pushbacks and making it almost impossible to travel safely to seek safety) and the Greek Coastguard sitting back and watching while a boat sank, then saving just one in every seven people aboard, and increasingly seems to have been a direct intervention by the Coastguard (under orders from the government) which killed 646 men, women and children – Kiriakos Mitsotakis and his ministers have been aggressive in attempting to defend their disgraceful behaviour and its outcomes.


Speaking before the election on Sunday 25 June this year, Mitsotakis told rallies and the Greek media that anyone who claimed the Greek Coastguard (he did not mention his government, even though of course both if the Coastguard followed his orders, and if, as the Coastguard claims, the people aboard refused help he and his government in fact have ultimate responsibility) had any part in the catastrophe was 'attacking Greece'.


This is hardly unusual from Mitsotakis, who characterises himself and his party as 'Greece' and thus smears anyone who raises questions about either – or any person employed in his or the party's service – as a 'traitor' to their country, but we have to point out that at that point absolutely no investigations had been made, and so Mitsotakis could not possibly claim to have known what happened.


This also – in combination with the absolute lack of capacity or willingness of any body in Greece to carry out any kind of independent investigation into the Greek government's activities – makes the likelihood of an 'independent inquiry' into how 646 men, women and children were allowed to die in the direct and close presence of a Greek emergency service, precisely zero.


If anyone from the EU ever sees a single line of this piece, we hope it is this: there will not be and cannot be an independent inquiry into this catastrophe carried out in Greece or by any Greek body which exists right now.


Please stop calling for one: what you get will be a poor joke about the idea of 'independence' and 'inquiries'.


And two weeks ago, Greece's new Migration Minister Dimitris Kairidis responded to questions about the catastrophe in the Greek Parliament with his new catchphrase: 'We are humanitarians, but we are not naïve.'

Within 20 seconds he stated that every rescue in the Mediterranean is 'a victory for human traffickers'.


Kairidis is not a stupid man, and is well aware that no-one on Earth could possibly regard him as a humanitarian. But his second statement raises serious questions about whether he is in fact a human being.


iii) Abuses of the legal system


Nor is Nea Dimokratia abusing the Greek legal system anything new.


Notable among its efforts to both assault humanitarian workers, national and international NGOs, and any and all defenders of human rights is its ongoing case against Sean Binder, the Syrian refugee and human rights activist Sara Mardini, Nassos Karakitsos and 21 other people.


These 24 people have been relentlessly smeared by the Greek government, which has regularly made public statements about them in direct contravention of the law against prejudicing a trial, claiming they were part of (and in some cases formed) an illegal trafficking ring, and an illegal organisation (they took no part in trafficking, or indeed smuggling, which is what the government usually misrepresents as trafficking for the sake of sensationalism, instead helping people off boats and safely onto land, the organisation to which they belonged was registered in accordance with Greek law, and regularly cooperated with the Greek Coastguard).


The first part of the case against them collapsed in January this year, but the second, which contains the more serious allegations, has not been heard.


We must note here that governments are of course allowed to prosecute people for breaking laws, but the Greek government has used its legal employees and the Greek court system to harass and intimidate not only people such as the 24 in this case, who have done nothing more than to help keep people safe as they used their legal right to travel and seek safety, but also any other person or group which wished to do the same.


It has also used the Greek media – an increasingly uniform bloc – to publicly-smear each one.


In a similar way, we have seen the government use its 'anti-money-laundering' investigation unit against organisations it is criticised by, including announcing in September 2022 to national media that the authority was investigating the organisation HumanRights360, which had strongly criticised the government's disgraceful conduct which led to the death of a five-year-old Syrian girl, Maria, on a Greek islet in the Evros river a year ago.


Greece's Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis also announced plans to take the organisation to court and strip it of its registration as a legal entity.


This act caused the organisation's director Epaminondas Farmakis to make a statement in which he effectively undercut all work the organisation had carried out to that point, as well as all but condemning the journalist and translator Giorgos Christides. He even went so far as to state that the islet on which Maria died was not Greek, but Turkish, a position even the Greek Defence Ministry admitted was false.


Such is the pressure placed on human rights defenders when they reasonably and in precise keeping with their job, criticise actions of the Greek government.


The outcomes of this situation were that HR360 remains effectively unable to do its work, and the 'investigation' by the money-laundering authority has revealed… absolutely nothing whatsoever.


The government also continually smeared the family of Maria, and those who travelled with them, claiming it would take them to court, with both Mitarachis and Mitsotakis pretending Maria had never existed, and that the people who had been with her had changed their testimonies. So far, despite her having died on Tuesday 9 August 2022, no court hearing has been held.


In a similar way, the head of the Greek Helsinki Monitor, Panayote Dimitras, has been relentlessly hounded by the government. Not only is he supposedly under charges of people trafficking, and having formed a criminal organisation – neither of which are true – and having helped third country nationals arrive into Greece, which is not only not true but also not in fact illegal, he too has been 'revealed' by the Greek government to be under investigation by the money-laundering authority.


Astonishingly, the authority told media it had suspended all Dimitras' bank accounts, and illegally told the media this was because he had used money donated by the EU for 'purposes other than supporting human rights causes'. (Mr Dimitras commented: ' The alleged funding to support human rights allegedly available for other purposes is non-existent. The only funded program deals with the fight against hate rhetoric and is posted by the sponsor European Commission


‘So this is a continuation of my smearing campaign which I recall that both the Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe and the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders. As I have already stated these prosecutions are the product of retaliation following our complaints of pushbacks.’)


The measure is a transparent effort to stop him, and the head of Aegean Boat Report Tommy Olsen, from recording and reporting illegal pushbacks carried out by the government. Which… absolutely is supporting human rights.


Mr. Olsen, too, faces criminal charges, none of which are even remotely true, and has repeatedly been smeared in government statements which have been published without question, and verbatim, by Greek media.


In November 2020, during the COVID pandemic, Mitarachis called a secret, online, invite-only press conference, during which he made a series of entirely false claims about Aegean Boat Report, including that it – one man based in Norway – was an operator of a trafficking ring.


This baseless claim was reported by international media and we are proud to say we were instrumental in ensuring these claims were retracted and many news sites made apologies, having been fed false information by Mitarachis.


Of course, more than two and a half years later, no charges have been made regarding these outright lies.


Along with a claim issued by the government and reported as fact on Monday 12 June that 'the anti-money laundering authority has investigated more than 100 organisations working on migration' and 'found indications 30-40 of them have committed crimes' – despite the fact that there simply are not 100 organisations working on migration in Greece and '30-40' is an astonishingly vague figure when the 'dataset' is supposedly just 100 – the facts are simple, and clear: the Greek government attacks anyone who criticises its despicable behaviour towards people on the move and those who defend their (and all of our) rights, including breaking the law to publicly-smear people with unproven and unevidenced claims, and abusing the national legal system to attack and threaten them (this is without even mentioning the fact that it consistently accuses people who save lives at sea of being 'traffickers' seeing them jailed for hundreds of years before appeals invariably release them).


Where we are and what we do


It might be worth noting, having shown that the latest claims are scarcely-coherent, let alone cohesive, that they are unevidenced and much of what is alleged is not even in fact illegal, why any of this matters.


Greece is an EU member state. It is, while far from wealthy by European standards, one of the world's wealthiest countries (44th of 192 by GDP per capita, 51st of 192 by national GDP, and 37th of 192 by GNI per capita).


It has been handed well over €3.1bn in the last eight years by the EU to respond to the refugee situation, and that does not include cash spent by NGOs and their employees on, for example, rent, food, drink and other essentials. Nor indeed does it include the money spent by new arrivals to the country.


And yet Greece is governed by an openly bigoted and racist government, breaks international and Greek law to harm and punish people who have committed no crime, and which portrays not only people seeking safety, but anyone who works to protect human rights, as a threat not to it and its law-breaking, but to the country as a whole.


Clearly, this is morally wrong. There is no universe in which men, women and children deserve to be beaten, have their small amounts of cash and few items of value robbed from them, be sexually assaulted and tortured and then forced into Türkiye (a state some of them have never before even been in), or indeed killed, for using their legal and human right to travel to seek safety.


Even if one rejects morals as a guide to good behaviour in politics (and one should not: we are not robots and should not aspire to be), it is also pragmatically wrong. Greece, including Greek individuals, Greek landlords, and Greek businesses, as well as the Greek state, has already benefitted enormously from the people who have arrived here since 2014.


And it will continue to do so, as children who entered as refugees finish school, and enter universities, innovating and helping to spread new ideas, even as their parents work, and spread their own ideas and suggestions, while contributing to the economic and social health of the communities in which they now live.


And Greece particularly needs this. By 2050, there will, at current demographic rates, be too few people of working age to cover the costs of educating the country's young people, and paying the pensions of its retirees. Greece urgently needs immigration to survive.


Simultaneously, a healthy country, and more particularly a mature and reasonable government, welcomes criticism. It thrives not despite, but because of those people – the media, human rights defenders – who stand for decency and transparency, for the rule of law and for people rather than the power of a tiny, wealthy elite.


Greece is at a great deal of risk at the moment from a tiny minority of people who believe everything should be done precisely as they wish it to be, and that anyone who opposes that or even raises questions about it, should be crushed.


That small group is not refugees, nor human rights defenders. It is the Greek government.


What we must do is remind people of this fact, and what the people of Greece must do is consider that human rights are the rights of Greek people as well. Once Nea Dimokratia has stripped them from Somali, Afghan, Syrian, Iraqi and other people, what is to stop them stripping them from you? And who will be there to stand with you when it tries?


The most recent allegations against (i)NGOs in Greece are farcical. They do not make sense in their own terms, and a great deal of what is alleged is not even illegal.


But in context they, and what they stand for, are anything but amusing. They are simply the latest in a line of concerted efforts to attack human rights defenders and those they defend, in part by pretending that they are saboteurs, traitors, and 'anti-Greek'.


But those they defend include you, including if you are Greek. Nea Dimokratia has never been 'Greece'. For the last decade or more, it has not even stood to defend or protect it.


The party stands for itself, and its very wealthiest backers. It is removing all possibility and all will to prevent it riding roughshod over the state, its laws, and its safeguards.


We should be protecting people seeking safety because they need our assistance now, and to a lesser extent because doing so will directly benefit us. We should be standing alongside human rights protectors to help them, and also to help ourselves, because when they are gone, there is no-one left to protect us from a wild government, red in tooth and claw.

*Mitarachis was promoted to Minister for Civilian Protection, a post he held for just 33 days, before resigning on Friday 28 July 2023, having been spotted on holiday while Greece was almost overwhelmed by wildfires which killed at least five people, injured at least 74, and forced thousands from their homes. We must note here, if this is in fact the reason for his resignation, it is an injustice in two ways, one of which we genuinely never expected to state:


First, because for all his despicable behaviour as Migration Minister, it is utterly unreasonable to pretend that Mitarachis, in his role for just 33 days, bears the main responsibility for the devastation suffered by Greece this summer: that belongs to Michalis Chrisochoidis, Minister from 2019-21, and Takis Theodorikakos, Minister from 2021-23, as well as Greece's Prime Minister throughout that period, Kiriakos Mitsotakis, who oversaw the spending of billions of Euros on military hardware and police, and almost zero on hiring fire fighters, or buying the equipment they need to do their jobs effectively.


Second, and we certainly did expect to say this at some point, because Mitarachis most certainly did and does deserve to be fired, and to live the rest of his life in ignominy – indeed, in jail – for his violence and lies against, and rape and torture, as well as killing, of, men, women and children newly-arriving in Greece. For him to be allowed to resign 'for personal reasons' because of being on holiday when he should have been doing his job, is a gross miscarriage of justice and an insult to the concept of international law, as well as to all those he so viciously mistreated.

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