OPINION

Christodoulos Rex

The trial of November 17 is turning into a national embarrassment beyond our worst expectations. We used to think that the group’s activities in the 27 years between its first murder in 1975 and its collapse were an embarrassment in that they showed how incompetent our security forces were, how weak-willed our politicians and how easily a small group of unknown individuals could intervene so dynamically in the country’s domestic and foreign policy agenda. But the year since the first arrests and the trial of 19 defendants that began on March 3 has done even more to shake us Greeks out of our complacency over who we are and how we behave. This has been a blow to ancient roots, to the proud image of heroic self-annihilation in the face of our own failings or insurmountable odds. First of all, November 17’s members are flesh of the flesh of Greek society. Among the self-confessed members and those who deny all involvement are an unemployed intellectual with an arrogant desire to impose his will on society, middle-class civil servants, self-employed professionals and unskilled working stiffs. So much for all the dark theories about the gang being made up of agents of local and foreign secret services. So even as the myth of the group’s makeup collapses, the understanding of just how incompetent our security forces were for so many years becomes even more depressing. Because from the testimony given by the handful of defendants who do not deny their participation in the gang, it must have been ridiculously easy to infiltrate November 17 – something which the spectacular failures of the police had managed to present as more difficult than Odysseus’s visit to the underworld. Costas Telios, a highly strung schoolteacher with a poetic bent, told the court in Korydallos Prison earlier this week that he found himself in November 17 after meeting a fellow defendant, Christodoulos Xeros, while on holiday on the island of Icaria in the summer of 1987. Christodoulos then introduced him to his brother Savvas and to Dimitris Koufodinas, both of whom have said they were members of the gang and who appear to have been the chief hit men in most of its murders. At some point, Telios said, Koufodinas informed him that he was now a member of November 17. Another confessed member, Sotiris Kondylis, said that he too was inducted into the group by Christodoulos Xeros. Christodoulos, a mountain of a man who was once treasurer of the society of traditional organ makers, had a workshop on Icaria and has even been preserved for eternity on a video clip, playing a baglama (a kind of miniature bouzouki) and backing a popular folk singer. He is not someone whose presence would have gone unnoticed in the extreme left-wing circles that police always suspected of nurturing November 17. In the year since his arrest, Christodoulos has not seemed to be a paragon of intellectual or conspiratorial rigor, so it is puzzling that over so many years he had aroused no suspicion and had not been contacted by any undercover agents trying to infiltrate November 17. When his brother Savvas was seriously injured by a bomb he was carrying in Piraeus on June 29, 2002, giving police their first and decisive break, senior officials admitted that the Xeros brothers and others close to them were never on their radar. Furthermore, another penitent, Patroklos Tselentis, told the court that he and Koufodinas had gone to university together and that Koufodinas had inducted him into November 17. Koufodinas, meanwhile, had gone underground because police had been looking for him since his father’s Volkswagen was seen speeding away from the site of a bank bombing 20 years ago. And yet, in their testimony, some members said that Koufodinas, alleged gang mastermind Alexandros Yotopoulos, using an alias, and other suspected members would meet at rebetika dives in Athens’s Exarchia district and enjoy a night out with the boys (no women were ever seen at these gatherings, Kondylis told the court). Over all the years that November 17 was killing people and causing explosions with utter impunity, it was widely suspected that the gang’s members might have something to do with Exarchia, an innercity district that attracts students, artists, intellectuals, anarchists and other eccentrics. One can only wonder where the police were looking. Another myth that has collapsed is that November 17’s members were a group of super-capable, super-informed operatives who knew precisely what they were doing and managed to get away every time because of their superb planning and execution. From the way in which they flouted the basic rules of conspirators (such as leaving their fingerprints all over the place) to huge mistakes (including dropping a hand grenade by accident as their car was passing a police patrol car, leading to the Sepolia shootout in 1991, and forgetting a handgun in their van’s glove compartment in another close encounter with police in 1992), their survival appears to have been based more on luck and police incompetence than their own capabilities. In addition, the public’s aversion to police informants – that is a legacy of the 1967-74 dictatorship just as much as November 17 itself is – must also have played a role in the group’s mystifying longevity. The more romantic among the Greeks might have considered November 17 a group of avengers out to right society’s wrongs, working to bring about a left-wing revolution as self-ruling Trotskyites. What the gang turned out to be, instead, if we look at those believed to be at its hard core, was the type of deadly bureaucracy against which Trotsky had fought so hard and which, in the form of Stalin’s regime, killed him. Members referred to the gang as «the Company» (or «the Firm») and, according to the penitent Telios, were threatened with «dismissal,» or execution, if they became a problem (although, to be fair, the more dynamic Kondylis said he left of his own accord in 1996 and was not threatened at any time). But, so many years after its inception in the riptide of the dictatorship, November 17 had clearly turned into a business. Its core members would organize robberies (even calling on others to lend a hand and then stiffing them, as defendant Theologos Psaradellis claims), and then Koufodinas and Yotopoulos appear to have determined how the loot would be spent. It would seem that in their revolution some members of the company were more equal than others, as, with a lot of free time on their hands (the first being a beekeeper and the second a bon vivant with artistic inclinations), both led comfortable bourgeois lives and had holiday homes on remote islands. Anyhow, as the most dedicated bureaucrat, Koufodinas kept the books and the weapons and the other members went about their business, following his orders. This cross section of Greek society (albeit it of a particular ideological bent and the product of a specific time) appears to have been neither hugely capable nor awfully well-connected nor made up of pure, romantic revolutionaries. It was just a bunch of regular guys who thought little of killing people in order to make a point. They appear to have got used to this, and, in trying to keep the business in the black, they also got used to robbing banks. At some point, Tselentis said, they considered setting up a fast-food joint on Syntagma Square so they could stop the robberies. Like so many of us who set out for something else, they found themselves with careers that they didn’t expect. (Except that most of us don’t land up working in a murder franchise.) And like every business in Greece, where would November 17 be without nepotism? In the dock we have three Xeros brothers and Angeliki Sotiropoulou, the former wife of Savvas, along with Koufodinas, to whom Sotiropoulou is now married. We also have three members of the Serifis clan and several friends and acquaintances, even though one of the alleged patriarchs of the gang, Yiannis Serifis, claims that he is just the victim of a frameup because of his many years of tireless activity as a unionist of the extreme left. But the most surprising aspect of the trial, which is speeding toward its end with only a few more defendants still to testify, is the abject cowardice of so many defendants. Koufodinas and Savvas Xeros acknowledge their «political responsibility,» as if murders, bomb blasts and robberies were just another political activity like pasting up posters. But, while presenting themselves as modern-day equivalents of heroes of Greece’s war of independence, they withhold all cooperation from the court, secure in the knowledge that, aside from a reasonably long term in prison that they will get anyway, they and others don’t have anything to fear. They are secure in a system which is there to protect them, unlike their victims, who were chosen arbitrarily and gunned down at point-blank range. Then there are those, like Yotopoulos so far, who, in the face of evidence and the testimony of others, deny everything. They know that in modern Greece those who confess and seek catharsis are the truly damned. Those who deny everything will always have the hope that they might escape, because we are not used to our police or judiciary achieving convincing convictions on their own and because we always look for conspiracies and not the truth. The worst lot are those like Christodoulos Xeros, who gave police and judicial officials long, detailed confessions which prompted a torrent of arrests and then, suddenly, they retracted, claiming to have been coerced, drugged and set up. Tragically, those whose principled stand highlights the cowardice of the rest have to labor under two terrible burdens. Tselentis, Telios and Kondylis have accepted their guilt both for joining November 17 and for not stopping its activities. But they are also isolated among their fellow defendants and treated as objects of disdain by the defense lawyers. Some journalists and other observers refer to them as snitches. Again, we seem to have more time for the defiant killer than the penitent. But, as Kondylis said, if you are going to be part of November 17, then obviously you should not be ashamed to express your beliefs when you are caught. «I was determined not to deny anything,» he said on Thursday. With their xenophobia and simplistic nationalism, with their evident love of the good life, of folklore and rebetika, November 17’s core members lived the dream of the semi-intellectual middle class which revels in its Greek roots. But their cowardice deprives them even of the aura they had tried to cultivate. Through ancient myth and history, the Greeks have known how to accept defeat and seek personal redemption through suffering. Oedipus the king tore out his eyes when he discovered that, unwittingly, he had killed his father, married his mother and sullied his city. Christodoulos Xeros, in a hallucinatory torrent of insults, told the court sarcastically that it could have his testicles for a tobacco pouch. If he were a real man, he would have punished himself and not tried to bluff his way out.