The Greek government, put on the defensive by mounting allegations of police brutality, has appealed for calm following clashes on the streets of Athens, mass protests and growing anger over the country’s prolonged lockdown.
The prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, called for restraint after an initially peaceful demonstration against police aggression turned violent late on Tuesday. Three policemen were injured in the street battles that ensued as law enforcers attempted to repel youths lobbing rocks and firebombs with tear gas, water cannons and stun grenades.
The protest had been prompted by outrage over video clips depicting a police officer brutally beating a man with an iron baton for reportedly breaking lockdown measures.
“I am addressing young people, who are destined to create and not to destroy,” said Mr Mitsotakis in an impromptu televised address after it emerged that one of the policemen had been seriously injured when he was dragged off a motorcycle and repeatedly kicked.
“Blind rage does not lead anywhere. It should serve as a wake-up call that the life of a young policeman was endangered. At this point everyone must display restraint and calm.”
On Wednesday, as tensions intensified, thousands of students took to the streets denouncing the centre-right government’s plans to install unarmed police units on university campuses.
"Rage is building up," said Panagotis Katis (20), a political science undergraduate at the University of the Peloponnese as he marched on the Athens parliament. "It's not just the campus police which goes against every notion of universities being places that ensure freedom of expression. People are incensed that their basic rights are being attacked by police who should be protecting us, not abusing the law, and that's why so many are out here today."
Tuesday’s clashes erupted after more than 5,000 people gathered in the southern suburb of Nea Smyrni, an area better known for its aura of law-abiding respectability, to protest against increasingly heavy-handed police tactics. Some held banners emblazoned with the words “Cops out of our neighbourhoods”.
The march was organised after anger built over video clips showing a police officer beating a 29-year-old student in Nea Smyrni’s central square on Sunday.
The man had been sitting on a bench enjoying the fresh air, when a police officer rounded on him, apparently in the belief that he had breached stringent curbs restricting freedom of movement.
“He pushed me and then the other officers kicked me all over my body,” the student subsequently told the left-wing newspaper Efsyn, explaining he had been trying to reason with the squad who had been levelling €300 fines on people deemed to be breaking the law.
In a rare step, the officer was relieved of his duties on Wednesday following an internal investigation. Aristotelia Peloni, a government spokeswoman, conceded that the video footage shared on social media was “disturbing to everyone”.
The incident has highlighted the often violent tactics of a police force that in both manpower and material reinforcements has been greatly reinvigorated by the Mitsotakis administration. The ruling New Democracy party assumed office in July 2019 promising to be tough on law and order after blaming its leftist predecessor, Syriza, for allowing lawlessness to flourish.
But complaints of police brutality have soared particularly since the start of the pandemic, according to the ombudsman tasked with looking into the latest incident.
Human rights groups and the Athens bar association have also criticised the excessive use of force, both attributing police actions to a culture of endemic impunity that has allowed the infractions to continue. Among the alleged abuses are reports of people being strip-searched in broad daylight.
Last year the government was criticised for legislation banning protests that it argued were dangerous to public safety. Amnesty International’s Greek branch held it accountable for the rise in violent incidents.
Much of Greece has been in lockdown since November, fuelling frustration and deepening fatigue in a nation that on Tuesday saw its worst ever surge in infection rates. "The country has a government that has totally lost control of the pandemic, and the only thing it knows how to do . . . is use a heavy hand," said Syriza's leader and former prime minister, Alexis Tsipras.
Pressure has grown in recent weeks as demonstrators have openly defied the ban on protests to hold marches in solidarity with Dimitris Koufondinas, the chief hitman of the now defunct 17 November, who has been on hunger strike for the past two months.
Left-wing supporters of the terrorist, convicted of the murders of 11 people, including a former British embassy military attache, were among those who took to the streets of Athens on Wednesday.
“We’re all here, including his son over there,” said one protester, pointing to a young man wearing a red bandanna mask. “Koufondinas wanted us on the streets. It’s getting explosive. There’s a lot of anger in the air.” – Guardian