NEWS

The race to catch – and jail – the terrorists

HANIA, Crete – Authorities closed in on the members of the elusive terrorist group November 17 in the past, but the legal system failed as a result of its weaknesses to put them away, according to a former national intelligence service (EYP) station chief. He is optimistic about the future and says these weaknesses can now be rectified under the new anti-terror law. Clearly the new anti-terror law is a step in the right direction, but unless additional measures are taken, I don’t think that it will function effectively, given that since November 17 first appeared until now, there have been instances that police indeed came close to capturing the terrorists in one way or another – I will not name who they are – but the justice system didn’t have the courage to take the proper steps, said police Major Costas Bantouvakis (retired), who served for over four years with EYP in Hania. These were among the most outspoken comments on the issue by a former member of the intelligence service. Bantouvakis echoed a statement by former conservative Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis, who on September 18 went on a television news show and repeated his statement that had his 1991-1993 government not been forced to resign after six months by defecting MPs, he would have dismantled the terrorist group, some of whose members, he claims, he had already put behind bars. My government had arrested a substantial number of members of the terrorist organization, Mitsotakis told Mega Channel then. He went to say that others released them, implying the PASOK government that came to power after him. Mitsotakis refused to elaborate on his charge and it was met with anger by those who had been targeted in probes at the time and been released by a prosecutor. The feeling is not widespread that November 17 suspects are known but that the law did not allow police to detain them. Bantouvakis joined the police force in 1972 until he retired in 1994 with the rank of major. From 1989 to 1993 he served as station chief for a field office of the national intelligence service. In a rare interview, and in the daunting time after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Bantouvakis noted that public sentiment in Greece – which after the military junta was hypersensitive about civil liberties – in combination with a lack of political will by the governments, allowed November 17 to operate freely. And then all of a sudden, the terrorists became popular heroes, or if you like, they became the bogeyman for the judges who were afraid of reprisals, thus creating a setting where the justice system could not function, as was also the case for the law enforcement agencies, he said. But the former intelligence officer declared that the newly enacted anti-terror law is on the right track, while stressing that additional measures should be taken along the way to ensure that law enforcement agencies and the judicial system are protected in carrying out their duties. The new law’s provisions include DNA testing of suspects, trials without jurors and a witness protection program. Today there is the political will to fight terrorism, though additional measures have to be taken for the stage after the preliminary investigation, he remarked. There should also be the right legal framework to ensure the protection of the judges so they can deliver justice. I can’t believe that after so many years we in Greece are not capable of eradicating terrorism. It’s unbelievable. International problem The September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States were a powerful reminder that terrorism knows no boundaries, languages or nationalities. It is an international phenomenon, and it should be dealt with as such. Everyone has started to understand that wherever terrorism cells exist, they should be eradicated, given the fact that terrorist organizations are no longer carrying out attacks only on their soil, but can strike at the very heart of other countries, Bantouvakis stressed. Who could have believed that the United States, this superpower, could suffer such a blow? According to Bantouvakis, the November 17 group is also believed to have had links abroad, making the intelligence agency that traditionally focuses on external national interests focus on a grave internal problem as well. By reading reports that have seen the light of publicity from time to time, one sees that all members of international terrorist organizations have at some point visited Greece as active agents. And for this reason we suspect that November 17 must have surely had, and continues to have, connections abroad, and harbored members of foreign terrorist groups in the past. He underscored that drug trafficking is also in some instances linked to terrorism, when specific governments organize drug trafficking networks in order to fund state-sponsored terrorist activities. As a result, terrorism is a problem that must be dealt with as a team effort and on a permanent basis, he said. Intelligence services from all EU countries are expected to hold a first-ever meeting this month to discuss means of cooperation in an effort to exchange vital information that could lead to faster arrests of suspected terrorists on the continent. This unprecedented gathering of intelligence agency heads is indicative of global efforts to strengthen security and close security loopholes that terrorists may use to avoid detection. Action, not overreaction The terrorist attacks in the United States and the war that the Bush administration has declared on global terrorism has left a number of countries – some of them even close allies of the USA that have sided with it in this new fight against terror – concerned about how this war will be conducted and its impact on international relations. For Greece, a close NATO ally of the United States as well as an EU member, this new drive in the fight against terrorism is both a blessing – as it can defend its decisions to take stronger legal measures against terrorism to a society extremely sensitive to civil liberties – and a cause for concern as the pressure is mounting from abroad for arrests before the Summer Olympic Games of 2004. No one, of course, feels good when Greece is named as one of the countries that harbor terrorism, Bantouvakis declared, referring to an annual report by the US State Department. And when the United States says that it will conduct a 10-year-war against terrorism, and that they are targeting terrorism rather than any particular country directly, it is easy to think: ‘There could be some targets here in Greece.’ It doesn’t sound good. So, we need to take action, even at this late hour. The former EYP officer underscored that Greece should expect pressure over the November 17 issue to mount in the months and years to come as the Olympic Games draw near. And everyone understands that having the issue of terrorism hovering over the Olympic Games will have an impact on the negotiations that will take place in the meantime on the Cyprus issue, on claims that the Turks have over the Aegean, as well as on the hosting of the Olympic Games, he said. Bantouvakis also expressed concern over who will be targeted in the long-term campaign by the United States and its coalition, and what criteria will be used to define terrorists. Of course, no one has yet defined the word terrorist, and this is a whole new territory, because Osama bin Laden in Europe is branded as a terrorist while the Taleban call him a hero, he remarked. They are two sides of the same coin. So, there should also be a clear definition of what a terrorist is. These are difficult meanings. Everyone sees the surface of the problem, but if we enter into the substance, things start to get very complicated. So complicated that we run the danger of truly negating the human rights and civil liberties of some minorities who are simply struggling for rights, and who at times are branded by some countries as terrorists.