Athens rocked by riots as tensions rise amid claims of police violence

Last weekend, police units turned out in a seemingly peaceful square in a suburb of Athens, carrying out identity checks and imposing fines, which provoked angry reactions from some passers-by. [EPA-EFE/ORESTIS PANAGIOTOU]

Riots shook an Athens suburb late on Tuesday (9 March) as police officers clashed with demonstrators protesting against alleged police brutality, with the government and opposition accusing each other of exploiting the worsening pandemic for political gain.

Approximately 6,000 people gathered in a square in the Athens suburb of Nea Smyrni on Tuesday evening to protest against claims of police brutality following an incident over the weekend involving clashes with police.

During Tuesday’s riots a police officer was reportedly badly injured when a group of demonstrators attacked officers. Videos posted to social media meanwhile appeared to show police officers using excessive force against the crowd.

In a televised speech broadcast following the clashes, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis appealed for calm, saying that “blind rage leads nowhere.”

“I address specifically to our young people, who are destined to create not to destroy […] I will not allow anyone to divide Greek society,” he added.

The violence follows an incident over the weekend, in which police units arrived on the same square and began carrying out arbitrary identity checks and imposing fines, provoking angry reactions from some passers-by.

Greek media reported that a group of policemen then became violent, with videos circulating on social media showing policemen beating people with truncheons and using tear gas against the crowd. The police later said its officers had been attacked by a mob.

Opposition politicians have since criticised the police for using what they said was disproportionate force. An investigation into the incident has been launched and is ongoing.

The association of Greek policemen meanwhile issued a statement calling on all political parties to show responsibility and put an end to the “political exploitation of the police institution.”

The main opposition party, the leftist Syriza, has been particularly vocal, accusing the conservative New Democracy government of seeking to create a police state under the cover of the pandemic. The government denies this and in turn accuses Syriza, which has supported the protests, of taking advantage of the pandemic for political gain.

“The official invitation of Syriza for the participation of citizens in demonstrations in the midst of the outbreak of the pandemic is an act of irresponsibility undermining measures to reduce the spread of the virus,” Mitsotakis said in a statement.

Mitsotakis’ government is currently facing a sharp resurgence of Covid-19 cases and a fragile economic situation due to a strict lockdown in place since November.

Greece on Tuesday reported a record 3,215 new Covid-19 cases within 24 hours. With the strained health system once again approaching breaking point, the country appears to have lost control of the situation.

Syriza, in turn, claims the clashes of recent days are a direct result of what they say is government mismanagement of the pandemic, and that Mitsotakis himself had provoked citizens after being twice caught breaking the coronavirus restrictions.

“After this, he cannot give the police orders to terrorise children and families gathering in squares”,  Syriza said in a statement.

“Instead of taking effective measures to protect citizens’ health, the government is treating the pandemic as a matter of restrictive measures and repression,” Syriza spokesperson Nasos Iliopoulos told EURACTIV.com.

Iliopoulos added that the weekend violence was not an isolated case, citing numerous incidents of police violence in recent months and called on the Prime Minister to dismiss the head of police and the responsible minister.

He also referred to New Democracy lawmaker Kostas Kyranakis, who revealed the name and political beliefs of a person who was beaten by police during a Greek TV programme.

“Imagine what else the policeman would do if he was not filmed,” Iliopoulos said.

He also said it was “inconceivable” that in the midst of a crisis, the government had recruited 1,000 special guards – police who do not receive formal training.

“Whoever bought Mitsotakis’ liberal profile was wrong. The government is turning the pandemic crisis into a crisis of democracy and institutions,” Iliopoulos said.

Critics suggest that opposition leader and Syriza head Alexis Tsipras wants to exploit the government’s vulnerable position to find his way back to power.

“We are getting through the most difficult period of the pandemic; the ICUs are full, a few days ago a 27-day-old baby died due to Covid-19, and Tsipras is calling on people to take to the streets,” Greek government sources told EURACTIV.

The sources added that the hiring of 1,000 new special guards “was in our government program before the pandemic […] We have doubled the ICUs and 12,000 personnel – doctors, nurses and health administrators – have been hired during the pandemic”.

[Edited by Josie Le Blond and Benjamin Fox]

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