Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Athens Courthouse Firebombed Amid Rebellion and a General Strike

Clashes break out as strike shuts down Greece

By MENELAOS HADJICOSTIS, Associated Press Writer
Wed Dec 10, 10:01 am ET

ATHENS, Greece – Protesters attacked Athens' main courthouse with firebombs during a hearing for police officers whose shooting of a teenager set off rioting that appeared to be tapering off Wednesday even as a general strike paralyzed the country.

The strike shut down schools, public services, hospitals and flights, increasing pressure on the fragile conservative government of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis.

The police involved in the fatal shooting were testifying behind closed doors when youths hurled Molotov cocktails at the courthouse and smashed a television satellite truck. Riot police fired tear gas. At least two people were hurt.

Riot police and youths also clashed in the city center during a demonstration by more than 10,000 people to protest the conservative government's economic policies. But outbreaks of fighting were smaller and less widespread than in previous days, an indication that the most violent nationwide unrest Greeks have seen in years may be ending.

The demonstrations and the strike called by Greece's two largest labor unions — umbrella groups that include virtually all public-sector and many private employees — were scheduled before the riots broke out. They were fueled, however, by anger at the handling of the riots by the government, which holds a single-seat majority in the 300-member parliament.

"This country is not being governed. The government can no longer convince anyone," senior Socialist party member Evangelos Venizelos said in Parliament. "There is no way Mr. Karamanlis can come back from this."

The policemen's lawyer, Alexis Cougias, told reporters that a ballistics examination showed that 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos was killed by a ricochet and not a direct shot. One of the officers had claimed he had fired warning shots and did not shoot directly at the boy. That officer is charged with murder; the other is accused of acting as an accomplice.

"Unfortunately this tragedy is the result ... of an act by the policeman to fire into the air. The bullet ricocheted, we have an entry wound from above," Cougias told reporters outside the courthouse. "It proves irrefutably that it was a ricochet."

He said the ballistics report was not yet complete but said he had been informed of its contents by authorities. There was no comment from prosecutors, who do not make public statements on pending cases.

Karamanlis' government has faced growing opposition over changes to the country's pension system, privatization and the loosening of state control of higher education, which many students oppose because they feel it will undermine their degrees.

The government's support dropped lower as gangs of youths marauded through cities across the country, torching businesses, looting shops and setting up burning barricades across streets.

The clashes in central Athens escalated into running battles through the city center, with masked youths pelting police with rocks, bottles and blocks of marble smashed from the Athens metro station entrance. The youths shattered windows newly replaced after four nights of rioting.

"The government wanted us to postpone this protest, but they are the ones who have to do something to stop this violence and to improve the quality of our lives," said one demonstrator, drama student Kalypso Synenoglou.

High-school students chanting "Cops! Pigs! Murderers!" clapped and cheered each time a riot policeman was hit by a rock. At least one person was hurt.

Clashes also broke out during demonstrations in the northern cities of Thessaloniki and Kavala.

Storeowners have accused authorities of leaving their businesses unprotected as rioters smashed and burned their way through popular shopping districts. Although police have responded when attacked by rock- and Molotov cocktail-throwing protesters, they held back when youths turned against buildings and cars.

But Karamanlis has ignored mounting calls for him to resign and call early elections.

An opinion poll for the conservative daily Kathimerini published Wednesday found 68 percent of Greece believe the government mishandled the crisis — including nearly half of respondents who voted for Karamanlis' conservative party in general elections last year. Only 18 percent approved.

The Public Issues survey was based on a sample of 478 people questioned Monday and Tuesday and had a 4.5 percent margin of error.

Greece has a long legacy of activism; it was a student uprising that eventually brought down a seven-year military junta in 1974. Tensions persist between the security establishment and a phalanx of deeply entrenched leftist groups that often protest globalization and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The groups have now evolved into various mainly youth factions that claim to fight trends ranging from globalization to police surveillance cameras. Their impact is usually limited to graffiti and late-night firebomb attacks on targets such as stores and cash machines.

Amnesty International accused Greek police of heavy-handed tactics against protesters, saying police "engaged in punitive violence against peaceful demonstrators" instead of focusing on rioters.

Associated Press writers Elena Becatoros and Derek Gatopoulos contributed to this report.

Greece crisis worsens with street battles, general strike

AFP - 1 hour 45 minutes ago

ATHENS (AFP) - - A fifth day of running street battles between youths and police and a general strike plunged Greece into further turmoil on Wednesday despite a vow by Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis to restore order.

As tests reportedly showed the shooting of a schoolboy that sparked the riots may have been caused by a ricochet bullet , protestors hurled petrol bombs outside a court where two police officers arrested over the killing appeared.

Demonstrators battled security forces outside the Greek parliament as the nationwide strike halted flights in and out of the country and closed banks, schools and some hospital services.

Hundreds of police defended the parliament building against thousands of demonstrators angered at the death of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos, who are now turning their sights on Karamanlis's right-wing government.

The controversy heightened with initial results from a post-mortem indicating he was killed by a bullet ricochet, legal sources said.

According to forensic experts and independent experts acting for the Grigoropoulos family, the bullet "is a bit deformed, which showed the bullet touched a hard surface" before entering the boy's chest.

Grigoropoulos was allegedly among youths who threw stones at a police car on Saturday in a district of Athens known as a stronghold for political radicals.

Initial witness accounts said he was hit three times in the chest. His death set off nationwide unrest, including clashes at his funeral on Tuesday when riot police battled youths near the cemetery.

As the two officers arrested over the shooting went before a magistrate for questioning, protesters hurled two petrol bombs outside the courthouse.

The petrol bombs were thrown as the lawyer for the police officers, Alexis Kouyias, was preparing to talk to reporters. Police said the youths who threw the bombs were friends of the dead boy.

In other parts of the capital, demonstrators hurled fire bombs, pavement slabs, tangerines, water bottles and other missiles in the latest street battles. Riot police fired back tear gas as youths taunted them as "assassins".

Athens was rocked by disturbances almost through the night and similar troubles were reported in the northern city of Salonika where more than 80 shops and 14 banks were damaged.

In the city of Patras, at least 500 protesters laid siege to the police headquarters well into the night.

There have also been protests outside Greek embassies in other countries and around a dozen Turkish left-wing protestors daubed red paint over the front of the consulate in Istanbul on Wednesday in a show of solidarity.

Anger at the police has been compounded by growing public frustration with the Karamanlis government over its economic policies and a string of recent scandals.

"This death was the catalyst for many grievances," said 18-year-old farming student George Tzouvelekis, one of the protestors.

"Look how the banks are being attacked, because they have refused to lower interest rates amid the economic crisis... Everybody is fed up."

The general strike, called before the death of Grigoropoulos, brought public transport, schools, banks and most administrative offices to a halt. Airlines cancelled dozens of internal and international flights.

The Athens Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) said 435 businesses had been hit during the violence, including 37 that were completely gutted.

Items looted included cellphones, computer software and equipment, clothes, shoes, electronics, jewels and watches, the chamber said.

George Papalexis, the owner of a Zolotas gem store in the capital, said his business had sustained losses of 80,000 euros after a group smashed through a reinforced window and made off with jewellery.

"Personally I expect the government should resign," he said. "Very soon we'll see a change of government. It's a disgrace to see a city left to burn."

In a televised address, Karamanlis pledged up to 10,000 euros to stricken businesses, a tax freeze and government-guaranteed loans to rebuild buildings and property burnt in the troubles.

"The government is determined to consolidate the feeling of public safety and to help businesses get back on their feet," he said.

Despite the turmoil, Karamanlis's office said he would attend a European Union summit in Brussels this week. The opposition has demanded the government resign and the demonstrators outside parliament chanted "Sack Karamanlis".

Rebellion deeply embedded in Greece

The BBC's Malcolm Brabant looks at why student anger has erupted across Greece over Saturday's fatal police shooting of a teenage boy.

The riots that have swept Greece for the past two days and look set to continue for the foreseeable future underline why the most important day in the national calendar is "Oxi" or "No" day.

"Oxi" day commemorates 28 October 1940, when Greek leader Ioannis Metaxas used that single word to reply to Mussolini's ultimatum to allow Italy to invade Greece, propelling his nation into World War II.

When Greeks say no, they mean it in spades.

Rebellion is deeply embedded in the Greek psyche. The students and school children who are now laying siege to police stations and trying to bring down the government are undergoing a rite of passage.

They may be the iPod generation, but they are the inheritors of a tradition that goes back centuries, when nuns would rather hurl themselves to death from mountain convents than submit to the ravages of Greece's Turkish Ottoman invaders.

'Springboards for violence'

The centre for this December rebellion is the Athens Polytechnic, where students have been out on the streets with wheelbarrows and shopping trolleys to collect and recycle rocks and pieces of marble used in the previous night's assaults.

The polytechnic is the symbol of modern rebellion.

On 17 November 1973, tanks of the then six-year-old military dictatorship burst through the iron railings to suppress a student uprising against the colonels.

The exact casualty figure is still unknown to this day but it is believed that around 40 people were killed.

The sacrifice of the polytechnic was so significant that the post-junta architects of Greece's new constitution drafted the right of asylum, which bans the authorities from entering the grounds of schools and universities.

That is why places of learning are the springboards for the current wave of violence and it also explains why many of the riots are in university towns.

Students and pupils have effectively been given carte blanche to carry on protesting, because their professors have declared a three-day strike.

'Out of control'

Although many of today's protestors were not born when the polytechnic gates were crushed by the tanks, the lesson of the students' martyrdom is a key component of every Greek child's school democracy curriculum.

The latent Greek contempt for the police, which has now erupted so volcanically, has its roots in the dictatorship, when the police were regarded as the colonels' enforcers and traitors to the people.

The death of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos at the hands of an experienced 37-year-old policeman has precipitated a wave of nationwide violence unseen since the dictatorship.

Whether it will lead to the fall of the unpopular conservative government of Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis is unclear.

It is premature to see the troubles as Greece's reprise of the Paris uprising of 1968.

One of the wisest observations has come from Nikos Konstandaras, the managing editor of Kathimerini, one of Greece's more sober and respected newspapers.

In an editorial entitled "Anger's teen martyr", Mr Konstandaras wrote that Mr Grioropoulos' blood would be "used to bind together every disparate protest and complaint into a platform of righteous rage against all the ills of our society.

"It will quickly become a flag of convenience for anyone who has a grudge against the state, the government, the economic system, foreign powers, capitalism and so on."

"If Greece had already appeared difficult to govern, it will now be out of control."

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2008/12/09 08:18:57 GMT

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