Romanos and the dilemma

The debate about anarchist and convicted bank robber Nikos Romanos was held amid tension and heightened emotions fueled by the 21-year-old inmate’s life-threatening hunger strike.

Talk about the “kid,” the posh northern suburbs, the private Moraitis School, the Nasioutzik family, the anarchist ideology, his friendship with Alexandros Grigoropoulos, the teenager shot dead by police in 2008 – all that set the context of the debate and divided public opinion between the “insensitive, law-abiding citizens” on the one hand and those “sensitive relativists” on the other. The grave issue of the rehabilitation and reform of prisoners became the subject of crude political exploitation in the hands of political parties and the news media.

Now that a compromise solution has been found, it is perhaps time for a more sober interpretation.

A first conclusion is that the government’s reaction came very late, as did the cross-party consensus. After an entire month, and after Romanos had stopped drinking liquids on top of his hunger strike, the political system – Justice Minister Haralambos Athanasiou and Greek lawmakers – finally realized that they could offer the anarchist the option of wearing an electronic tag so he could study at Athens Technical College where he gained a place this summer. The 21-year-old had already indicated to his lawyer that he would accept this as a solution. The amendment was passed through Parliament on Wednesday (only three MPs voted against). I hope that deputies had inside information about Romanos’s condition or, if not, they came very close to being accused of criminal negligence.

Apparently, the issue could be resolved by meeting three conditions: A young man had to live; he should be given an opportunity to plan his life over; the law had to be respected.

I am not going to discuss here whether Romanos is a symbol or hero in the eyes of young people or if he is a cold-blooded criminal. He is an adult who has been convicted for armed robbery. In fact, more charges are pending against him. He is an unrepentant anarchist and has stated that the aim of his hunger strike was to challenge the “purportedly humanitarian character of the system.”

However, it was not Romanos who was faced with a moral dilemma; the state was. The “system,” as Romanos likes to say in a derogatory manner, was called upon to decide whether it would show that its humanitarianism is in fact “purported,” and thereby make Romanos a martyr, or whether the principles of our middle-class democracy are foremost based on respect for human rights, and thereby prove Romanos wrong.

That said, we should acknowledge that Romanos achieved something remarkable. Instead of using the social influence of his family to push for a tailor-made provision that would allow him to study at the technical college, he chose to risk his life so that other inmates (who fulfill the conditions) can enjoy the same rights. In that sense, Romanos was the opposite of convicted November 17 terrorist Christodoulos Xeros who, in absconding earlier this year while on prison furlough, led to the toughening of legislation and deprived inmates at Greek prisons of precious breaths of freedom.