Opposition Syriza party accuses the government of recently elected New Democracy party of 'emboldening' police violence.
Shortly after thousands marched in the Greek capital to commemorate the eleventh anniversary of a police shooting that killed a teenage boy on Friday, groups of black-clad youth gathered in Exarchia, a restive neighbourhood in central Athens.
The youngsters busted stones off a statue in the square, set mounds of rubbish ablaze, and geared up for clashes with the hordes of heavily-equipped riot police surrounding the neighbourhood, an area known as hub for anarchists and a safe haven for migrants and refugees.
Each year, protests and riots mark the 2008 killing of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos, who was shot dead by a police officer on December 6 of that year in Exarchia.
Police arrested 12 and detained another 48 during clashes in Exarchia, and dozens more were detained or arrested in Patras and Thessaloniki, the country’s third and second largest cities, respectively.
On Friday night, the first Molotov cocktails exploded around a bend on a residential street, and a swarm of riot police appeared near the central square. Anarchist youth hurled stones, bottles and petrol bombs. “Cops, pigs, murderers,” they chanted, scattering as a column of riot police hurtled in their direction.
When the police officers apprehended the first suspect, they pummeled him on the ground, dragging him while one hit his shins with a fire extinguisher.
They dragged him off and disappeared, allowing the young rioters to regroup and prepare themselves for more confrontations.
This year’s clashes come amid a sharp uptick in what rights groups and activists describe as police brutality, a trend that has steadily increased since Greece’s rightwing New Democracy party swept snap elections in July.
By Saturday, the left-wing Syriza party, which governed Greece between January 2015 and July of this year, had criticised the government for emboldening police violence, as had the Greek division of the Amnesty International rights group.
Syriza’s Dimitris Papadimoulis, a member of the European Parliament, said that he planned to “internationalise” the issue and accused New Democracy of taking “revenge” on leftists and other activists opposed to its policies.
“The new government is trying to hit first the young people,” Giorgos Papanikoulaou, a 25-year-old left-wing student activist, told TRT World. “They are trying to put a police state in every aspect of our lives.”
Threat to evict squats
More than 5,000 marched on Friday night, shutting down large streets in the city center and passing the Greek parliament before heading back to Exarchia.
Earlier in the day, drones flew above and large squads of police followed another demonstration as marchers made their way through downtown Athens. Although tensions were high, the protest ended without incident.
Friday’s rallies and violence also came a day after the expiry of an ultimatum set by the Greek Ministry of Citizens Protection two weeks earlier.
That ultimatum stipulated that squatted buildings—many of which provide residence to refugees and migrants—would have to evacuate on their own or face raids and evictions.
Facing criticism for weeks of escalated tensions and a spate of attacks on demonstrators, the Ministry of Citizens Protection established a new committee to monitor allegations of police violence.
Announced in late November, the five-member committee will investigate claims submitted regarding police brutality.
In response to the outcry over Friday’s incidents, the Hellenic Police announced that it had sent videos and photographs to the new committee in order for an investigation to be carried out.
“At the same time, citizens who have relevant material or are witnesses or believe they have been subjected to violence in similar cases are invited to report to the aforementioned Ombudsman investigation mechanism,” read a statement released after the incidents.
At the time of publication, TRT World was unable to reach the Ministry of Citizens Protection and the Hellenic Police for comment.
Crackdown on 'criminality'
Many New Democracy lawmakers, however, have celebrated the police response to protests and riots.
Following Friday’s violence, Konstantinos Bogdanos, a New Democracy member of parliament, wrote on Twitter that the police crackdown demonstrates “what it means to have a state at last”, claiming that lawlessness had flourished under the former left-wing government.
New Democracy came to power on promises of cracking down on criminal activity, placing a special focus on Exarchia during the electoral campaign leading up to the July vote.
But Syriza, the left-wing party that governed Greece from January 2015 until July, has blasted the New Democracy-led government for ramping up police brutality, deploying riot police to attack left-wing student activists and peeling away rights affiliated with protesting and freedom of expression.
“Leaving all other issues aside, there is a fundamental paradox in the policies of New Democracy,” Alexis Charitsis, a Syriza spokesperson, told TRT World.
“The ‘law and order’ agenda is not targeting big financial interests that are associated with corruption and organised crime. This discrepancy reveals the true nature of the ‘law and order’ governmental rhetoric.”
Last month, during brief clashes following the annual commemoration of the 1973 Polytechnic student uprising on November 17, riot police stormed Exarchia and arrested dozens.
Videos later emerged showing riot police officers stomping, dragging and cursing demonstrators they had detained.
In one incident, a 20-year-old woman was allegedly hit in the head with a police baton, although she had reportedly not been involved in the protests or confrontations between demonstrators and police forces.
The following day, riot police officers again attacked demonstrators outside an Athens courthouse, where they had gathered to support those who had been arrested the night before.
Clashes between students and riot police have swelled since August, when the new government pushed through a law that revoked campus asylum, which forbade police officers from entering university grounds.
Less than a week before the November 17 commemoration, police raided the Athens University of Economics and Business, where they later said they had confiscated a cache of materials intended to be used in violence against security forces.
The following Monday, hundreds of students gathered on the campus and clashed with riot police, who fired tear gas and firecrackers, clubbed students, and arrested at least two.