NEWS

Koufodinas: The VIP treatment

MARIANNA KAKAOUNAKI

TAGS: Focus, Justice, Politics

The phone rang at the Avlona juvenile detention facility, north of Athens, on Friday, July 24, 2015, with the announcement from a high-ranking Justice Ministry official that Koufodinas was going to be transferred there. “Koufodinas who?” inquired the perturbed clerk. “The one you’re thinking about. He’ll have all the proper paperwork,” came the answer. “When?” asked the clerk, now truly alarmed. “Today.”

Before the administration even had a chance to notify the correctional officers and guards of this sudden new development, there was a commotion outside at the main gate. Teams of counterterrorism officers had arrived at Avlona. Heavily armed and with their faces covered, they were about to unload convicted November 17 assassin Dimitris Koufodinas from an armored van.

Panic broke out within moments, from the police of the small local precinct that had not been notified, to the prison officials who didn’t have the protocols or security measures to deal with such a criminal. Even the supervising prosecutors were blindsided. In the meantime, Koufodinas had gone through security at the front gate and was headed to the administration’s main offices.

He was calm, cooperative and happy, looking forward to being in a prison where, in his own words, “he could see the sun,” for the first time after 13 years. A year earlier, after fellow November 17 terrorist Christodoulos Xeros had escaped from the capital’s high-security Korydallos Prison, the New Democracy government had turned the regional penitentiary at Domokos, central Greece, into a maximum-security facility for Koufodinas and the rest of the N17 convicts, among other dangerous criminals. The same law had also set out strict guidelines regarding furloughs, stipulating that they were prohibited for inmates at Type C prisons like Domokos, but also for those convicted of serious crimes at regular prisons who had served less than 18 years of their sentences. Leftist SYRIZA was in the opposition at the time and has reacted strongly to the stricter rules. When it was elected four months later, it abolished the stricter security measures at Domokos and the furlough restrictions, even for prisoners serving multiple life sentences.

According to Kathimerini sources, Koufodinas had asked to be returned to Korydallos. Someone in the Justice Ministry, however, had a better idea: “You can go to Avlona. You’ll be closer to home,” he told the convict, whose family lives in Varnava, a short drive away from Avlona. Koufodinas questioned how it would be possible for him to be transferred to a prison like Avlona. “There’s a way,” he was assured.

The “way” was a practice employed by every government: Avlona prison has a crew of 15 adult inmates – plumbers, electricians, builders, engineers etc – who are responsible for the old building’s maintenance. Among those 15 places, three or four have always been “reserved” for the political leadership’s choice. These are basically inmates who enjoy favorable treatment, as conditions for the Avlona maintenance crew are much easier than at any other prison in Greece. Under the New Democracy government, for example, these spots had been filled by a former minister of a foreign state and his son, as well as a man who had worked as a supplier for the National Intelligence Service and the counterterrorism unit.

The SYRIZA-Independent Greeks coalition government had already availed itself of this custom by sending its first VIP prisoner (as correctional officers have nicknamed these privileged inmates) to Avlona within two months of being elected. This individual was one of the suspects in the Noor 1 drug smuggling case (where 2 tons of heroin were intercepted on a cargo ship in 2104). When he arrived at Avlona, his papers were not in order and there was some tension between the prison’s administration and the ministry, but this was soon resolved and the inmate was placed on the maintenance crew – on paper at least.

Koufodinas, however, was a whole new ballgame and almost everyone at the prison was opposed to his transfer on that July 2015 day. Only one worker saw his presence in a positive light, asking his colleagues to keep an open mind: “Believe me, he’s very capable. He can help at the school and teach a few afternoon classes,” he said in the inmate’s defense. Even those who weren’t opposed to his transfer were uncomfortable: “What’s he going to teach? Terrorism or beekeeping?” one correctional officer said, referring to Koufodinas’ hobby. It was an amusing comment that helped lighten the mood.

Objections

The Avlona detention facility’s administration made repeated appeals to the Justice Ministry, expressing its concern about the situation. “Why didn’t you object when New Democracy did it? Why do you only object to our guys?” was the response to one such appeal, according to sources. The correctional institution’s administrators tried to explain that Avlona is a low-security prison with educators, journalists and visitors coming in and out every day, and was ill-equipped to deal with an inmate like Koufodinas. “Haven’t you heard? Maximum-security prisons have been abolished,” was the answer to that observation. In the meantime, the supervising prosecutors had drafted a memo explaining their objections, and had mailed it to the ministry. They also knew that Koufodinas would apply for furlough soon, and that was one hot potato they really did not want to handle.

Five days later, the ministry’s secretary-general, Eftychis Fytrakis, visited the prison. “Why are you causing problems?” he was heard telling the prison’s director in a caustic manner. “I am not creating problems. This situation is a problem,” she responded. Their meeting went on for some time behind closed doors, but the workers in the office could hear them arguing in heated tones. Once it was over, Fytrakis asked to meet with Koufodinas and his lawyer. According to a letter published by the convict online, Fytrakis spoke of a “deliberate plan” and an “atmosphere of pressure” to prevent the terrorist from staying at Avlona.

Later that same day, a decision was made to take Koufodinas out of Avlona for “security reasons” and so that the prison could return to normal operation. There was something odd, however, about the decision that was written by the Central Committee for Transfers: It gave the names of three people who had expressed serious reservations about Koufodinas’ presence at Avlona (two prosecutors and the director). What’s more, someone in the Justice Ministry asked that the document be given to Koufodinas, a move that was beyond anything foreseen by proper procedure. Administrators at the correctional institution felt that the ministry was trying to put the blame for the decision on them, effectively painting a target on their backs.

They objected to the document being shown to Koufodinas, but the ministry insisted. Eventually, the warden took it to the jailed terrorist, who read it and did not seem a bit surprised. “They couldn’t deal with the pressure for even five days,” he is quoted as saying, as he gathered his few belongings. An armored van later took him back to Korydallos, placing him in the court wing. He went on hunger strike, demanding to be transferred to a special wing of the women’s prison, where he would enjoy more privileges.

“I reminded the ministry again that there is a limit beyond which personal dignity cannot be weighed against any other concern, be it health or life itself,” Koufodinas said in a letter he later published online. His request was accepted a few days later.

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