Owners of Internet cafes are hurt by gambling ban

A draconian computer gaming ban enacted two years ago is still alive and kicking in Greece, despite a string of court decisions throwing it out as unconstitutional, the country’s Internet cafe owners complain. «They treat us like criminals,» said Aris Asimakopoulos, a 28-year-old computer specialist who runs an Internet cafe in downtown Athens. Policemen stormed Asimakopoulos’s enterprise twice in January, threw out all clients, confiscated 50 PCs and arrested an employee. «Posing as clients, we ascertained that in 49 out of the 70 PCs installed, prohibited video games were being played such as ‘rally,’ ‘football’ and ‘war games’,» said the policeman leading the raid in his written deposition. «I spent the night in jail with a drug dealer,» said Asimakopoulos’s employee Theodoros Constantinou. A row of blank PC screens, sealed by the police with wax, are behind him. «They’re practically destroyed now,» Asimakopoulos said. «The law is the law and we have to enforce it, even if it prevents us from pursuing our real aim, which is the fight against illegal gambling,» an official at the Athens gaming police told AFP. In a desperate attempt to clamp down on out-of-control illegal gambling in 2002, the Greek Parliament passed a law that summarily banned all public gaming conducted by electronic and mechanical means. The law targeted rogue game hall operators who illegally turned arcade games consoles into gambling machines. But the blanket ban led law enforcement officers to start random raids on Internet cafes in which customers played run-of-the-mill games such as chess, flight simulators or car races. Dozens of Internet cafe owners have been dragged before court since then across the country, particularly in towns in northern Greece, away from the attention of the national media. According to a recent update of the law, Internet cafes are even barred from operating in basements or upper floors, so that police can more easily control them from street level. «It’s crazy what happens up here. Gaming depends on each local police chief’s whims,» said Sotiris Kalaitzidis, who runs Internet cafes in the neighboring towns of Yiannitsa and Koufalia. «We have more than 50 acquittals across the country,» Costas Sindoris, president of the Internet Cafe Owners Association, told AFP. But court acquittals are of small comfort to the owners, mostly computer graduates in their 20s who set up the cafes for lack of high-skilled jobs in Greek companies. A court adventure shuts down their operations, which are deep in bank debt, for weeks. PCs are often unusable after long spells in humid storehouses. Acquittals fail to set a legal precedent to stop the raids, according to police. «Each case is different,» the police official told AFP. Rather than combating gambling, the law just seems to open the door to abuse of legitimate Internet cafe owners. «Greece is full of phony Internet cafes, opened by operators of banned gambling halls,» Yiannis Gousakis, another Internet cafe owner, said. «These guys earn so much, that even when police catch them and confiscate their PCs, they can pay the fines and buy new material with just a single day’s proceedings,» Gousakis added. Internet cafe owners want to benefit from the upcoming August Athens Olympics to draw attention to their problem. «This law can’t stand,» said Asimakopoulos. «There were even plans to hold the World Cyber Games here in Athens because of the Olympics. But when officials realized what the situation is here in Athens, they decided to hold the Games in San Francisco instead,» he said.