In Greece, a string of killings pushes domestic abuse into the spotlight
ATHENS – One woman was suffocated, her body found next to her baby. Another was pushed off a cliff. Yet another was stabbed 23 times.
The highly publicized and horrific killings, along with a steep rise in domestic violence cases in Greece in the past year, have pushed partner-on-partner violence into the spotlight in a country where such abuse has long been whispered about but rarely publicly discussed.
“For decades, the Greek justice system showed leniency to abusers citing ‘crimes of passion,’ ” said Clio Papapantoleon, a prominent lawyer. Now, she notes, she is receiving a surge in requests for representation from victims of domestic violence.
The violence has led to interventions by authorities, including a decision to start a national video campaign in November that urges women to leave abusers and offers free emotional support and legal advice. The video flashes apologies – “I didn’t mean it,” “My baby,” “I’m sorry” – in knife-shaped blocks of text. Police have opened special offices to deal with domestic abuse cases.
But activists and officials say that much more needs to be done to prevent more women from dying or suffering silently for years. That includes more training for police officers, who critics complain sometimes fail to see warning signs. In one recent case that horrified the nation, a woman was stabbed to death just weeks after police failed to intervene when called by a worried neighbor.
The rise in domestic abuse mirrors increases elsewhere that, in part, appear to be a side effect of Covid lockdowns, prompting the United Nations to speak of a “shadow pandemic.” Pope Francis has also addressed the issue, denouncing the increase in domestic violence worldwide as “almost satanic.”
In Greece, police recorded acts of domestic violence against 5,705 women in the first 10 months of last year, up nearly 60% from the same period of 2020. Some of the jump is probably attributed to more women speaking up, but that does not diminish the scope of the abuse.
The number of women who were killed in episodes of domestic violence was up, too – to 16 in the first 10 months of 2021, from nine for the whole of 2020.
The brutality of the killings in Greece last year shocked the nation, dominated coverage in the media and, in some cases, made international headlines.
The violence has fueled debate on a topic that until recently had been virtually taboo in Greece, said Vasiliki Petousi, a sociologist and head of gender research at the University of Crete.
“The significance of the family in Greece, and its unity, has typically spurred many women, and often their relatives, to conceal their abuse,” Petousi said. But more women are speaking out, something she attributed in part to an increase in public awareness campaigns and media coverage. A decision by Olympic sailing champion Sofia Bekatorou in January 2021 to make public sexual assault allegations against a sailing federation official prompted broader discussion about abuse in general, Petousi added.
Another pivotal moment came in May with the death of Caroline Crouch, killed while her child was nearby. Her husband, Charalambos Anagnostopoulos, a Greek helicopter pilot, admitted to suffocating her and is awaiting trial on murder charges.
Katerina Kostaki, a psychologist at a counseling center in Athens, one of a national network of 43 such centers, said that the gravity of the violence had spurred more victims to come forward. “Women were so scared that they’d be next that they started talking,” she said.
The centers and a 24-hour phone line have been busy. In 2021, the centers received 5,491 visits, up from 4,925 in the previous year, and the phone line got 6,797 calls, up from 4,619 in 2019.
“The figures show the impact of the pandemic on abuse,” said Maria Syrengela, the Greek deputy labor minister in charge of gender equality. “The violence has certainly increased, but so have appeals for support as women listened, learned and trusted that there are facilities to visit and experts to listen to them.”
In the same month that the government began its video campaign, Greek Supreme Court prosecutor Vasilis Pliotas called for cases of domestic violence to be fast-tracked, referring to “extreme, inconceivable, unrestrained, abhorrent and exceptionally harsh homicides that have stunned society.”
Greek police also plan to open more special domestic abuse offices. Over the past two years, some 73 offices have been introduced nationwide to monitor such cases. In addition, six front-line units, with personnel specially trained to support victims, opened in city precincts at the end of last year – five in Athens and one in Thessaloniki.
The Greek public order minister, Takis Theodorikakos, said this past week that more front-line units would be opened to tackle the problem, citing the recent rise in cases.
Even with the attention on domestic violence, there have been indications of police officers mishandling abuse cases. In July, two police officers were suspended after failing to adequately respond to a call for help by a woman reporting domestic violence being committed against another woman in her apartment block in the Athens suburb of Dafni. The call had been flagged by the emergency service as “high priority,” but the two officers who went to the scene did not intervene.
Less than three weeks later, the woman who had been abused was stabbed to death. Police said that her husband had confessed and was in custody, charged with murder.
Papapantoleon, the lawyer, said an entrenched view by police that domestic abuse was not always serious had precluded systematic action. She said that officers needed more training.
Giorgos Kalliakmanis, head of the police union for southeastern Athens, where the Dafni stabbing happened, said that officers were instructed to take domestic violence seriously but that excessive demands on them and a lack of specialized training could be obstacles.
“Officers are overworked, dealing with cases ranging from checks on Covid measures to thefts,” he said. “If 90% of domestic cases they’ve responded to in the past are simple arguments, they might not give enough weight to the more serious incidents.”
He called the actions taken in the Dafni killing an “isolated incident,” noting that the officers sent to the scene “did not evaluate it properly and should have handled it differently.”
The force is trying to better prepare its officers to respond to cases of domestic violence and began specialized training courses at the end of the last year with the help of psychologists and prosecutors, he added.
The justice system has also been criticized. Those convicted of abuse are sometimes given lenient sentences because they claim to have been provoked or because they have no prior convictions. Papapantoleon said that limits could be introduced on the amount by which sentences could be reduced because of such mitigating circumstances.
The political opposition, notably the leftist Syriza party, has proposed that the term femicide be included in Greece’s criminal code as a separate offense carrying heavier punishment.
An initiative has also been taken at the European level. In December, the European Commission laid out rules to tackle hate crimes, including gender-based violence, after calls by European Parliament members in September for those offenses to be categorized as a “particularly serious crime.”
Syrengela, the minister, said that Greece aimed to do more to combat abuse.
An “action plan for sexual equality” unveiled in December includes initiatives aimed at curbing domestic violence, including more public awareness drives and bolstering the participation of women in decision-making roles in the labor market and elsewhere.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said that the plan would tackle Greece’s “social ailments,” including violence against women.
“There is a huge silent majority that are still not speaking out,” said Petousi, the professor, who called for more counseling centers and other practical measures to encourage victims of violence to come forward. “There is much, much, much more to be done.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.