Sixty-five years later: Will justice finally prevail in George Polk’s case?

Understandably, the crisis which has plagued Greece in recent years has sharply focused the public’s mind on today’s painful realities. But while the nation struggles to extricate itself from the terrible plight it now faces, certain tragic errors and injustices of the past, particularly if they undermine democratic principles and weaken the foundations of a just and benevolent society, must not be forgotten.

Sixty-five years later, a historic legal case is once again being brought to the nation’s attention in the hope that a grave miscarriage of justice will at long last be rectified.

On May 15, 2013, documents were filed with the appeals prosecutor in Thessaloniki requesting that he review the 1949 conviction by the city’s Criminal Court of Grigoris Staktopoulos as an accomplice in the murder of the American journalist George Polk. Staktopoulos received life imprisonment, while two known communists were sentenced to death in absentia. The request to review Staktopoulos’s conviction has been filed jointly by Angelos Sideratos, the publisher of Proskinio, and Athanasios Kafiris, distinguished jurist, retired Supreme Court prosecutor and author of an authoritative book on the Polk/Staktopoulos case. Their initiative follows four appeals to the Supreme Court, first by Staktopoulos and later by his widow, all of which were denied. Under Greek law, following the death of the convicted felon, the prosecutors of the court that handed down the conviction may request that the court re-examine the case. The matter is now in the hands of the Thessaloniki appeals prosecutor.

The Polk/Staktopoulos case attracted much international attention in the early days of the cold war and has been the subject of numerous books and articles. Among Greek publications, particularly valuable for their expert legal analysis are the books by the prominent attorney Eleftherios Vourvachis, “Poios skotose ton Polk; Mia politiki dolofonia kai dikastiki plani” (Proskinio, 2003), and by Athanasios Kafiris, “E ypothesi Polk-Staktopoulou. Mia anthropini kai dikastiki tragodia” (Proskinio, 2008, 2010). In 2002, in his capacity as Supreme Court vice prosecutor, Kafiris recommended that the court grant the appeal of Staktopoulos’s widow; when the court refused to do so, Kafiris resigned. Our own research and analysis of the case was published in Greek in Edmund Keeley’s “Fonos sto Thermaiko. Ypothesi Polk” (Ellinika Grammata, 2010).

Most students of the subject agree that Polk’s killers were never identified and that the crime remains unsolved. Various theories attribute the murder to the communists, to right-wing politicians or extremists in the security forces, to criminal elements of Thessaloniki’s underground, or to the American or Soviet secret services. A shadow of suspicion remains over a British information officer who, while posted in Thessaloniki, is known to have offered to assist foreign journalists to interview Markos Vafeiadis, the head of the insurgent Democratic Army of Greece, something Polk was attempting to do when he met his death. None of these theories has been supported with convincing proof and while the search for answers continues, there is little hope that new and conclusive evidence will ever come to light. Instead, the prestigious George Polk Award, given annually by New York’s Long Island University to honor special achievement in investigative journalism, serves as a painful reminder of the brutal murder of a prominent correspondent whose killers have remained unknown and unpunished.

If Polk’s murder remains a mystery, those who have followed the case closely have concluded that Staktopoulos was innocent of the charges on which he was convicted, that he had been an accomplice to a communist conspiracy to assassinate the American journalist. When the police investigation of the crime failed to identify the culprits or produce credible forensic leads, the authorities resorted to highly speculative reasoning and politically motivated assumptions that in retrospect appear as ludicrous as their practical results were tragic. While Americans openly intervened and pressured for an arrest and conviction, the Greek authorities searched desperately for a plausible suspect and succeeded in weaving together an imaginary plot and a scenario that could convict the hapless victim of their scheme. After considering several possible suspects, they settled on Grigoris Staktopoulos, a hardworking but obscure journalist in Thessaloniki who had a brief affiliation with local communists and no family, political, or social connections to protect him against the abuse of authority by police and Ministry of Justice officials desperate to close the Polk case.

Following his arrest and long detention in the basement of the Thessaloniki Security Police building, where he was almost certainly subjected to physical and mental torture, Staktopoulos was tried and convicted on the basis of his own rambling and confused confession, which he was compelled to revise to suit the prosecution’s improvised case against him. The evidence presented at the trial failed to link the accused to the crime, was not corroborated by facts, and the defense made no attempt to challenge the prosecution’s case but confined its role to appeals for leniency.

After 11 years in prison, including four in a Security Police cell, Staktopoulos’s sentence was reduced and he was released in 1960. He bitterly recanted his confessions and in a book, “Ypothesi Polk. E prosopiki mou martyria” (Gnosi, 1984), he declared his innocence and detailed his terrible ordeal. In 1977 he petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn his conviction but his appeal was denied. Broken and destitute, he died in 1998. Three more appeals by his widow, in 1999, 2002 and 2006, each presenting new evidence challenging the prosecution’s case, were similarly turned down.

In his book “E ypothesi Polk-Staktopoulou,” after reviewing in great detail the four appeals and their rejections, Kafiris argues that the Supreme Court judges were motivated by a “guild mentality” [“syntehniako pnevma”] and “collegial solidarity” [“synadelfiki allilengii”] which prevented them from subjecting the decisions of their predecessors to rigorous and impartial scrutiny. The logic of this important argument places most of the burden of responsibility for the rejections of subsequent appeals on the panel of judges who rejected Staktopoulos’s original petition in 1977. According to Kafiris, that panel included judges who had been appointed to the Supreme Court during the junta years and who were not likely to give credence to claims that Staktopoulos’s confession had been the result of torture or that new evidence presented in the appeal contradicted the prosecution’s case.

The realization that we will probably never know who killed George Polk, and that his murderers have escaped justice, is disturbing enough. Sixty-five years later it is even more disturbing to know that Grigoris Staktopoulos, although innocent of the charges, remains falsely convicted and the victim of an official frame-up. The successive refusals of the highest legal authority to correct such a grave injustice perpetuates a dark stain on the country’s legal system that can no longer be attributed to foreign pressures and to the need to defend the country against its domestic and external enemies. In the nation’s conscience, the protection of the innocent citizen from political expediency and official misconduct matters today more than ever. The court authorities of Thessaloniki have been given what may well be the last opportunity to exonerate Staktopoulos and redeem Greek justice. That opportunity must not be lost.

* John O. Iatrides is emeritus professor of political science at Southern Connecticut State University. Edmund Keeley is emeritus professor of English and creative writing and emeritus director of the Hellenic Studies Program at Princeton University.

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