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Sunday, 26 May 2013

#rbnews weekly bulletin 18-24 May 2013

The text companion to this week's #rbnews international show is now online. You can read it after the jump.

1. Racism, xenophobia and antisemitism

The new bill against racism, which was brought forward by Minister of Justice Antonis Roupakiotis and proposes much harsher sanctions against all forms of racism than existing legislation, is facing once again obstacles, not only from neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn but from senior government coalition party New Democracy. The bill has been handed over to the Central Legislative Committee of Parliament, where it is now stuck as New Democracy MPs argue that the 2008 European Framework Decision, which would be embedded in domestic legislation if the bill were voted, is not binding for Greece as Greece has already had anti-racist legislation since 1979. This manoeuvre is perceived by many to be a mere procedural trick, as several prominent members of New Democracy, including Prime Minister Samaras himself, have engaged in xenophobic and even openly racist public statements. The leaders of the three parties forming the government coalition, New Democracy, PASOK and Democratic Left, are due to meet on Monday afternoon to resolve their differences with regard to the bill.
The bill was also condemned by Bishop Amvrosios of Kalavryta, who called it "despicable". He then led a delegation of Greek orthodox priests who brought a letter with their objections to parliament. Bishop Amvrosios is known for his sympathy towards Golden Dawn.
Meanwhile, anti-fascists are getting organized but are also facing the hostility of the police and local authorities. A demonstration in the city of Patra against a public Golden Dawn event in the evening of Sunday 19 May ended with the arrest of 4 anti-fascist activists and the detention of 40 others. In Kalamata, an initiative was launched to collect signatures after the mayor announced that he would not oppose Golden Dawn's festival in the city on 03-04 August.


The situation of human rights has considerably deteriorated in Greece over the past year, as highlighted in Amnesty International's annual report. The Greece fact sheet on human rights violations includes so many instances of racism and xenophobia that Amnesty's Greek chapter chose to hold their press conference to present the report in front of the Aliens' Department on Thursday 23 May. Amnesty's concerns include the lack of fair and effective asylum determination procedures, the routine detention for long periods of asylum-seekers and irregular migrants, including unaccompanied children, discrimination against people because of their perceived ethnicity due to the police sweep operation "Xenios Zeus", persistent reports of inhuman and degrading conditions in immigrant detention centres and police stations and the dramatic escalation of the number of racially motivated attacks in 2012, while victims with no papers have no protection from arrest and deportation for the duration of criminal proceedings. A recent example of the latter emerged this week, when the movement "United Against Racism and the Fascist Threat" reported that two migrant farm workers who were stabbed in Manolada a few weeks ago when they claimed their unpaid wages are facing deportation. The Ministry of Public Order also announced this week that it would be hiring private security companies to guard migrant detention centres, signalling that it does not intend to close them but also that directing funds to the improvement of detention conditions is not a priority.


Representatives of SYRIZA who visited the Omonia police station on Athens gave the following  account of what they saw: "A detainee in the National Security block, whose foot was cut in early May, is sleeping on the cement floor. Another is ill and hasn't washed in two weeks and doesn't have clothes to change. The detention area has no ventilation. Detainees sleep directly on the floor and cover themselves with a bed sheet, or sleep on the sheet without anything to cover. They drink water from the lavatories in their cupped hands because there are no cups. They eat once a day, and they often have to complain intensely to even get that at all. They have no access to a phone. The area for female detainees is the entrance hall to the detention block, and that's where they sleep, sitting or standing, in front of the lavatories. Things were "kind of better" in the police detention block, because they had been warned about our visit. There, detainees denounced the brutality of the police, while administrative detention can last for up to 14 months in an area which, for the most part, has no natural light. There is a Syrian refugee among detainees there, while other detainees in the same block include drug addicts who experience withdrawal symptoms and a man with a severe mental illness, who urinates inside the detention area. At the same time, the policemen who work there receive no personal hygiene items, they pay for it from their own pocket, they don't get medical exams and there aren't enough of them to even cover the shifts."


The US State Department also published this week its annual report "International Religious Freedom for 2012″, in which it noted that "There were reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious
affiliation, belief, or practice. The Greek Orthodox Church exercised significant social, political, and economic influence. Some non-Orthodox citizens complained of being treated with suspicion or being told they were not truly Greek when they revealed their religious affiliations to other Greek citizens. Members of non-Orthodox religious groups reported incidents of societal discrimination. Members of the Muslim minority in Thrace were underrepresented in public sector employment, and no Muslim military personnel advanced to officer ranks. There were reports of harassment and increasingly violent physical attacks against individuals perceived to be immigrants and refugees, many of whom were Muslim. Expressions of anti-Semitism increased after voters elected members of Golden Dawn to parliament." The report notes that there is still no mosque in Athens despite the presence of a substantial Muslim population in the city and lays particular emphasis on the neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic character of Golden Dawn, while listing multiple incidents targeting Jewish monuments or the Jewish population. These include statements by Golden Dawn about the Holocaust and the "Jewish lobby", the distribution of a booklet on the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" together with a newspaper affiliated with Golden Dawn , painting of swastikas on the door of the Jewish cemetery in Ioannina,  the wall of the Jewish cemetery in Drama and all six sides of the Holocaust monument in Rhodes, and painting of Stars of David on all banks in Chalkida. Police opened investigations in each case, but did not identify the perpetrators. The report also notes the trial of journalists and Jewish community representatives sued in 2007 by theoretician of Greek neo-Nazism Kostas Plevris for defamation. You can read more about the latter case on our website.


2. Human rights in the crisis

The crisis is affecting human rights in various other ways which are not limited to migrants and other vulnerable minority groups. Amnesty International further notes various threats to freedom of expression in its report. Another report by the Research Association of Human Sexuality (Emas) and the Andrological Institute, titled “Crisis Greece and the Memorandum”, was published on Wednesday 22 May and reveals that domestic violence against women has risen by 47% in recent months.
The NGO Klimaka revealed this week that the number of suicides in Greece has hit a 50-year high, with 477 suicides registered by the Hellenic Statistics Authority in 2011. Klimaka notes that the actual number of suicides is much higher than the number recorded, and that there is no statistical data available on the number of failed suicide attempts which is estimated to be 15 to 20 times higher than that of recorded suicides.
A UNICEF report titled "The State of Children in Greece", which was released on Thursday, shows a dramatic increase in child poverty in Greece since the first bailout and austerity policies, as well as an even more dramatic increase in the number of children at risk of poverty and social exclusion. 16.4% of minors in Greece now appear to be living in households suffering from severe material deprivation, meaning 322,000 children: this number increased by 89,000 individuals, or 38.2%, between 2010 and 2011. Younger children are even hardest hit, with the same increase from 2010 to 2012 for the specific group of 6-11 year olds reaching 46.7%.


3. Unemployment

Greece's economic decline was also highly visible in the Eurostat news release about uneployment in Europe dated 22 May. 8 of 13 prefectures of Greece, namely Western Macedonia, Continental Greece, Attica, Thessalia, Epirus, Central Macedonia and the Peloponnese, feature in at least one of five top-ten lists of unemployment in Europe which focus on overall unemployment, male unemployment, female unemployment, youth unemployment and long-term unemployment. Western Macedonia tops the youth unemployment list, with a whooping 72.5%.
In a related development, a programme against unemployment targeting 400,000 people was rejected by the European Commission this week. The programme offered unemployed people community work for salaries below the minimum wage and was due to be funded with European structural funds. It had been approved by parliament in a recent vote on a little-known new austerity package two weeks ago and approved by the troika but was rejected this week by the European Commission, on the objection that the programme's rationale does not comply with rules of the European Social Fund, which does not fund community work. It therefore appears likely that the programme will not be implemented but that legislation that essentially abolishes the concept of a legal minimum wage will remain in place.


4. Skouries

The Halkidiki police force held a demonstration on Thursday 23 May outside the regional police HQ in Polygyros to protest the fact that such a large section of the local police force is on guard duty around the worksite of mining company Hellas Gold in the Skouries forest instead of conducting regular police duty in the region, as would be necessary at the start of the tourism season. The policemen's union press release states that "those responsible must understand that the issue of Skouries in Halkidiki is not an matter for the police to manage." They were joined in this protest by police unions from other regions of northern Greece, which have been sending reinforcements to Halkidiki, creating a shortage of staff in other areas. The secretary of the Police Officer Union of Thessaloniki Theofilos Papadakis said at the protest that “the matter of the gold mines is political. It concerns the Ministry of Development, not the Ministry of Public Order”.
Meanwhile, the trial of the three women who were brutally arrested last week while protesting in the Skouries forest on Mother's Day was postponed because the general director of the Central Macedonia police force, who is an important witness for the prosecution, did not turn up. The trial was postponed to next Monday. The women are accused of sedition, insults to the police, an unlawful attempt to liberate a detainee and grievous bodily harm.


5. Strikes in the private sector and teachers' non-strike

Employees of the dairy company MEVGAL have been on strike for 30 days to demand payment of 4 months of arrears in wages. Other demands include that no one be sacked and that a new collective labour agreement be signed. A similar strike is taking place in the FAGE dairy company. In both cases, there are reports that the management is seeking to break the strikes by taking supplies out of the occupied factories and selling them.
Collective labour agreements are a hot issue these days as 45 sectoral agreements expired last week. The communist-affiliated union PAME held a rally last Monday in Athens to demand that new conventions be signed. The Union of employees in the print publishing sector also went on strike on 23 May for the same reason.
Meanwhile, the national university entry examinations are taking place normally while teachers are still under civil mobilization. The Federation of Secondary Education State School Teachers denounced again this week the civil mobilization, saying that the government is taking and keeping them hostage. It must be noted that the civil mobilization order against teachers was open-ended and it is unclear when it will be lifted.
An important reason the teachers had chosen to go on strike is the fact that, under new legal provisions pushed through by the government, the Ministry of Education can chose to discipline and suspend a teacher for activities outside the school setting. This precisely happened to a teacher from Larissa this week, who had been arrested and charged with sedition during a protest after the 25th March parade. The Movement for Liberties and Democratic Rights of Our Time, who reported this event, asked in its press release: "Can participation in a rally that will be met with the police's well-known methods be stigmatized to such an extent that it leads to sacking?"


6. Kaisariani shooting range

It emerged this week that the Kaisariani shooting range is on the list of State-owned properties due for privatization. The Kaisariani shooting range is an important monument of the history of contemporary Greece and as such is, or should be protected by the Ministry of Culture, because it was used as the execution ground for hundreds of resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of Greece in World War II. The biggest recorded Nazi crime in Kaisariani was the execution of 200 communists on 1 May 1944 in retaliation for the killing of a German general and his entourage in Lakonia a few days earlier. It is unclear how a protected historical monument could be privatized under Greek law. The Deputy Minister of Development did not answer questions by SYRIZA MPs on the ethics of selling out historical memory or even on the privatization itself and merely insisted that the merging of three State agencies, one of which owns the shooting range, is necessary to preserve the jobs of their employees.


7. Golden Dawn and guns in parliament
Following last week's incident in parliament, when Golden Dawn MP Iliopoulos was expelled by the deputy speaker of parliament for his unruly behaviour, it was reported this week by the newspaper Eleftherotypia that an unnamed Golden Dawn MP had to be stopped from bringing his gun inside the parliament building. When the policeman on duty saw it on the passenger seat of his car, the MP said: “I prefer to get someone first, before they get me.”
SYRIZA MPs had already reported in the past that Golden Dawn MPs were carrying guns inside parliament, which is illegal as only MPs' bodyguards are allowed to be armed. New Democracy MP Fotini Pipili also expressed this concern this week. The council of political party leaders decided following these two incidents that parliament rules should be enforced to the letter and that all people entering parliament, including members of the government, would have to go through a metal detector.


8. Lagarde list

Official documents pertaining to the Lagarde list, a list of some 2000 Greek bank account holders in the HSBC branch in Geneva, of which some at least are suspected of tax evasion, were forwarded by the French Ministry of Finance to the Greek parliament this week. The documents show that, despite claims to the contrary by former Ministers of Finance George Papaconstantinou and Evangelos Venizelos, the list had been sent to the Greek authorities in 2010 as an official document and with the sole purpose of allowing investigation of the possibility of tax evasion.
Journalist Kostas Vaxevanis, who was arrested and put to trial in October 2012 for publishing the Lagarde list in his magazine HotDoc, published an angry opinion piece on his website Pandora's Box, demanding that charges be brought against Papaconstantinou, Venizelos but also other officials who sought to cover up the list. He concludes with: "Is there a prosecutor to indict Venizelos for covering up an official document (the Lagarde list) while he not a Minister? And it goes without saying that I'm addressing this question to those "sensitive" prosecutors who indicted me for publishing the list and then appealed against my acquittal."


9. Politics

There have been considerable changes in the Greek political scene in the past year, with parties splitting and re-merging both on the left and on the right of the political spectrum. It was announced this week that Alexis Tsipras's predecessor at the helm of SYRIZA, Alekos Alavanos, is now officially the head of a new political party named "Plan B", which advocates returning to the drachma. Meanwhile, SYRIZA is processing internal tensions in preparations for its upcoming congress in July 2013, when it will evolve from a coalition of 15 political groups into a single party entity. Five constituent parties of SYRIZA published this week a proposal for management of this unification process, demanding that the single entity be designed in such a way that it respects and maintains the individual character of each constituent group and the plurality of radical left-wing voices within SYRIZA.
Meanwhile, another high-level PASOK official announced this week that she is leaving the movement to launch her own political initiative. Former Minister of Education Anna Diamantopoulou is thus following into the footsteps of Louka Katseli and Andreas Loverdos, who started their own parties in the spring and the fall of 2012 respectively. It is unclear what level of influence these new movements can have given the unpopularity of the policies enforced by PASOK from 2009 onwards. In the May 2012 elections, Louka Katseli's Social Pact party had garnered less than 1% of the vote, leading it not to compete in the June 2012 elections.


10. Charges brought against the former governor of Kavala district

Former governor of Kavala district and New Democracy official Theodoros Kalliontzis was charged this week in a corruption case about the Kavala Industrial Zone. The case involves the selection of an inadequate plot of land for establishment of the zone and its overpricing as well as public works contracts that were paid for and never implemented or completed. Furthermore, Theodoros Kalliontzis was also charged last week in another, unrelated case for mismanagement and possibly embezzlement of funds.
This is but one of several corruption cases involving New Democracy regional and local officials in northern Greece. Other notable cases are the former mayor of Thessaloniki and the former governor of the Central Macedonia region. It is noteworthy that the latter, Panagiotis Psomiadis, was appointed as campaign manager for northern Greece by Antonis Samaras for the 2012 elections, even though he had already been indicted for embezzlement of public funds. 

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