Greece

From the Greek government and police, few answers and photoshopped excuses

Alleged bank robber Nikolaos Romanos, before and after photoshopping

- By Zoe Mavroudi

When earlier this month, the badly photoshopped mug shots of four Greek men bearing visible signs of beatings, were published on the official website of the Greek police causing an outcry from human rights groups, the justification of the publication by Greek authorities hit a familiar note.

Minister of Public Order and Citizen Protection Mr Nikos Dendias claimed that the publication and digital alteration of the suspects’ mug shots was necessary in order to make them “recognizable” to members of the public, who might presumably assist the police in further investigations. The four men, aged 20 to 25 years were arrested following two bank robberies near the northern town of Kozani and are suspected of involvement in the militant group Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire. A subsequent police investigation concluded that torture allegations in the case of the Kozani 4 were untrue in spite of the protestations of rights groups and charges from some of the men’s family members.

Mr Dendias’ main argument – that the publication was a necessary procedural step in an unfolding investigation – echoed the argument made during another recent public exposure of suspects by the Greek police. In May 2012, the mugshots of 26 HIV-positive women were published, once again on the official site of the police, along with their names, dates and places of birth and the names of their parents. Charges of prostitution and the intent to cause grievous bodily harm have since been dropped or reduced for most of the women, while international organizations condemned Greek authorities for its violation of medical confidentiality and unnecessary disclosure of sensitive personal data.

The defense of Greek authorities at the time was similarly problematic. According to the authorities, the photos were published in order to protect public health and encourage the women’s presumed clients to get tested for the virus even though the arrests were not instigated by any reported incidents of HIV transmission or even strong evidence of transactional sex. The women’s blood tests were administered inside police stations, which posed an additional, serious violation of medical rules.

The mugshots of the Kozani 4, covered in ridiculously amateurish digital blurs, hardly concealed the suspects’ bruises and swollen faces. The HIV-positive women’s mugshots were similarly disturbing, revealing signs of drug abuse, including facial scars and bodily emaciation. Apparently, for the Greek police, a suspect’s scars do not need to be photoshopped when they are self-inflicted.

Aesthetics notwithstanding, the two cases are not outwardly related considering the differences from a legal standpoint. Both cases however, are telling snapshots of the behaviour of police and legal authorities in a country that has seen its economic woes morph into a full-blown political and social crisis.

Shortly before the Kozani 4 arrests, the Ministry of Justice suggested revisions in the provision that specifies the conditions under which a prosecutor has the right to order publication of a suspect’s photo, a move widely seen as a belated effect of the outcry that followed the HIV-positive women’s public exposure.

The revision, if approved, will allow a two day window to suspects to argue against their exposure in front of the chief prosecutor but will keep the right to a final verdict within the office of the prosecution, without intervention from an independent authority. Legal experts have since criticized what they believe is a meaningless, cosmetic alteration to an already problematic legal premise.

The selective publication of mug shots of crime suspects by the Greek police seems like a strange hybrid of confidence and anxiety from an increasingly repressive political class that is witnessing the international reaction to its failures become transparent.

Τhe crimes or alleged crimes of individuals do not justify crimes by the state. This is a basic democratic principle. A few days before the Kozani 4 arrests, Mr Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner publicly called the neo-nazi Golden Dawn party a “specific threat to Greek democracy” during his official visit to Greece and claimed its fascists have infiltrated the police and country’s schools. Mr. Muiznieks told the Greek newspaper Ta Nea that a victim of racist violence had personally confided in him that the same policemen, who harassed him one morning returned later on the same day dressed in Golden Dawn t-shirts to attack him.

More than 200 racist attacks were recorded in Greece between 2010 and 2012, most recently resulting in the death of a Pakistani man. Two suspects were arrested shortly after that murder but their mugshots were never published. Mr Muiznieks’ calls to the Greek government to assign investigations of police brutality to an independent body have yet to be satisfied.

It remains to be seen whether pressure from abroad to respect human rights will force a reckoning within the Greek police force and the Greek government. Until then all we can hope for is photo-shopped excuses.

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