Greece’s tradition of spectacular trials

The fall of the 1967-1974 military dictatorship ended in the prosecution of the instigators of the April 21, 1967 coup. The classification of the crime of overturning democratic rule as «perpetual» opened the way for the prosecution. The instigators, who were first held on the island of Kea, went on trial in Korydallos Prison, where the trial of the November 17 suspects began yesterday. The juntists’ trial was the first major one after the fall of the dictatorship, but followed a long tradition. The early 1950s brought the sentencing and execution of communists Nikos Beloyiannis and Nikos Ploumbidis, then the trial of air force officers and the notorious «Aspida» case during the 1960s. During the dictatorship was the trial of the anti-juntist «Democratic Defense» and then of Alekos Panagoulis, for his attempt on the life of dictator Giorgos Papadopoulos. A criminal trial which took place during the dictatorship but which later emerged to have been purely a political case, was that of Nikos Moundis, a «peeping Tom,» for the murder of British journalist Ann Chapman. Moundis was sentenced to life imprisonment, but was freed after the fall of the dictatorship. Chapman’s father had always maintained that the juntist authorities had his daughter killed because of her investigation into their activities. In 1975, Greece was back in the spotlight as the military dictators were brought to justice. The government of Constantine Karamanlis had settled the question of democratic government and was now free to move on to punishing those who had violated democratic legality. For the press, who had been muzzled for seven years, the events at Korydallos were a major event. Then too, journalists only had recourse to pen and paper, as radio and television were a state monopoly and the trial was not broadcast. The public’s only source of information were the newspapers, and circulation figures soared. It is no coincidence that the judge who announced the ruling, Ioannis Deyiannis, was referred to as the «national judge» and later appointed by PASOK as a deputy of state – wrongly so, according to many people. Nor is it a coincidence that the prosecutor, the late Constantine Stamatis, was twice appointed caretaker justice minister during election campaigns. That trial shook the country, but it helped put things into perspective. When the death sentences were pronounced, Karamanlis commuted them to life sentences, adding his famous words: «When we say life, we mean life.» Papadopoulos died a prisoner, as did Odysseas Angelis, while Dimitris Ioannidis and Nikolaos Dertilis are still in prison. Almost around the same time as the juntists’ trial, that of the torturers who worked for them took place at the military court in Rouf, again without any television or radio coverage, but with journalists using the first small tape recorders. It was here that the full implications of the dictatorship were revealed. Colonel Moustaklis, in a wheelchair after being disabled by the torture he had undergone, broke down in the courtroom, while Admiral Engolfopoulos, the navy chief, described the humiliations sailors were subjected to. The torture chambers of the military police (EAT-ESA), were described in testimony such as that given by the airman Tassos Minis, now deceased, regarding the methods used by torturers such as Theofiloyiannakos, Spanos and Hatzizisis. During these trials, newspaper circulation figures skyrocketed as details emerged of a period that had been unknown to the general public. The judge was General Plevrakis, but it was the court commissioner and later news commentator and parliamentary deputy Michalis Zouvelos whose pronouncements in court went down in history. There was no need for television, as the journalists of the time, many of whom have gone on to play a leading role in their field, had all the skills they needed for the task. Later there was the «pyjama» trial, that of serving officers, juntist «remnants» arrested on charges of plotting a coup. This case, considered a personal success for the defense minister at the time, Evangelos Averof, was marked by the escape of the group’s leader Brigadier Paraskevas Bolaris, who has never been found. Then there was the trial in which the dictator Ioannidis and his associates were charged with the attack on the Polytechnic, which sealed the fate of the dictatorship. As the years passed, private television and radio stations were eventually allowed to operate, changing the rules of engagement for the media. In 1989 was the «corn case,» involving Soulis Apostolopoulos, later president of the Bank of Attica, and the former minister Nikos Athanasopoulos. It was the first major trial that was broadcast live. Television channels, both state and private, were able to show as much as they liked, whenever they liked, zooming in on the many incidents instigated outside the courthouse by supporters of PASOK. It was the prelude to the «Koskotas scandal,» and the subpoenas issued to Andreas Papandreou, Menios Koutsogiorgas, Dimitris Tsovolas and Giorgos Petsos provided plenty of fodder for private television stations. At the time, the state media were affiliated with political forces opposed to PASOK and did their best to create the worst impression of Papandreou and his former ministers. The live broadcasting of this trial created a dangerous political climate and the stigmatization of people who would have had a different fate under different courtroom conditions. Of course, the television reporters were doing their job, and the live broadcasts brought the trial into our homes, but that doesn’t mean that this was as it should have been. Every evening the opposing views were aired on Giorgos Kouris’s «Kanali 29,» which was PASOK’s bastion since the hitherto pro-Papandreou newspaper publishers had decamped, only to «regain their memories» during their testimony at the special court. It is our view that this latter trial had several side effects: – It made judges unpopular with a large sector of the people. – It created a strong climate of polarization at a time when the country was sorely in need of normality. – It gave some journalists and politicians the chance to denigrate the historic compromise between Left and Right in Greece, calling it the «dirty ’89.» – It lead to the collapse (and subsequent death) of Menios Koutsogiorgas, which was broadcast live, prompting many negative reactions on the part of the public. Undoubtedly, the November 17 trial is just as important as all of the above. We could even point to a common element between the juntists’ trial and the one that began yesterday. During a recess in the 1975 trial, General Patakos said to this writer: «Even [Greek war of independence hero Theodoros] Kolokotronis was imprisoned by Greeks. Do you doubt that this is also the way we feel?» Even before the November 17 trial started, defendant Dimitris Koufodinas was comparing himself to the freedom fighters of 1821. The public will certainly want to find out everything about the case that has rocked the country for 27 years and led to major problems in its relations with other countries. Already, journalists have begun to do their job, armed with the skills they need to have to in order to do that job: to give a detailed description of events, without prejudice, and to report precisely what is said during the proceedings. For many people, images might be the «weapon of the age,» but the great trials of the past have not gone down in history because of their images but because of what was written about them.

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