Seven against Simitis

The Greeks gave birth to tragedy and are still heavily into theater in all its forms. This is one of the joys of being alive here, where so much of what we do is part of some haphazard but dramatic «happening» – whether we have to wait in a queue the whole day to submit our tax declarations or when we block the city center to press a demand, or when we can’t go about our business because someone else is on the march. Where once the Chorus commented on the protagonists and their woes, we now have our wildly moody news media. But, in a break with Attic tragedy which brings them closer to Aristophanic comedy, our television and radio stations and newspapers not only comment on the action but also fall over themselves to play a leading role. This adds an unpredictable dynamic capable of turning tragedy into farce and comedy to tragedy. Our national politics are played out like a clash of titans on a stage, with warrior princes leading parties of subservient or sullen underlings into battles for their own greater glory. Right now we have the grudge match of this latest, increasingly bitter election campaign. In order to keep the spectators interested, Prime Minister Costas Simitis and opposition leader Costas Karamanlis (the Younger) strut and shout and simplify everything into a battle between good and evil, truth and lies. For a country with an endless political tradition it is disheartening – or perhaps just illuminating – to see that politics boils down to variations on buying votes with promises or undermining what the others have done or said. But the player who gives Greece its greatest sense of theater is, literally, the Man in the Street. Our Everyman (or Everyperson) is often seen strolling with a placard down vital traffic arteries, shouting slogans against everything from the government to imperialism. This is one of the points where Greece (which is so inward-looking despite the inspired adventurism of its people when freed of constraints), is linked with an international movement – the one that was born at the anti-World Trade Organization riots in Seattle in 1999, baptized in the blood of Carlo Giuliani in Genoa in 2001 and given new impetus by the United States in its war on terrorism and invasion of Iraq. The anti-globalization movement became global. So when Greece got its six months of fame as president of the EU in the first half of this year, we were graced with the presence of international protesters, who now confer a sense of occasion on any gathering. If the EU summit that we hosted on June 21 had not drawn such attention, it would have been a slap in the face, a condescending declaration that Greece was not an important country, a pillar of international inequity, and therefore not worth bothering with. Greek delight at the prospect of protests was so great as to be quite embarrassing. Government and Thessaloniki municipal officials laid on accommodation and even transportation for the happy campers of globoprotestation, eager to show what good sports they were. Notwithstanding the over-the-top geniality, things still worked out well. The protests had something for everyone. Despite the free camping facilities and police boasts of tight security, serious youths in black took over a Thessaloniki University building and used it as their beachhead. There were enough masked youths from Greece and beyond to cause mayhem during a largely peaceful march. Despite shopkeepers having spent small fortunes boarding up their shops and even dismantling electronic signs, many of them suffered extensive damage. And, despite the official bonhomie, the police appeared not to have got the message: They gave the riot its own legitimacy by coming down hard on the rioters. They arrested 29 people, seven of whom were locked up pending trial on charges of rioting, possessing explosive devices (gasoline bombs), and so on. Two of the seven were minors and were sent to the juvenile prison at Avlona, north of Athens. The others, who were jailed in Thessaloniki, were two Spaniards, a Briton, a Syrian and a Greek. There was a nice international flavor to the event. There were even dark rumors that an American had been arrested but was released at the intervention of his embassy. (If this did indeed happen, it must have been the worst embarrassment for the unfortunate American, but it sounds too good to be true as neither the US Embassy nor the Greek authorities have ever given us reason to suspect them of such humor). So far, the street theater which we are so used to but which strikes viewers abroad as akin to Nero’s burning of Rome had played out according to the script. And the summit went off without a hitch. But then real life kicked in. A state television channel crew and some photographers got footage of riot squad officers showing the contents of a black rucksack (gasoline bombs and an ax) and then placing it next to a protester who was bloodied and sore and under police guard. But the footage also showed that the man, Simon Chapman of Britain, had been carrying a rucksack whose shoulder straps (at least) were blue. So the black bag was not the one Chapman had been carrying. Although there was no footage of what was in the blue bag, nor what happened to it, the implication that Chapman had been framed was immediately picked up by supporters and some news media before fading away. The seven protesters were jailed pending trial. The law says suspects must be tried and sentenced within 18 months of their arrest, so we are accustomed to seeing people disappearing for over a year before their trial. But now four foreign nationals were in custody for what appeared to be an indeterminate period. And the suggestions of a frame-up of Chapman gave the anti-establishment groups precisely what they needed – grounds to claim that it was the system that was to blame for everything. The first real sign of dynamic support for the seven came on Sept. 8, when the Greek consulate in Barcelona was sent a booby-trapped book which did not explode. On Sept. 20, in connection with this, five members of an anarchist cell in Barcelona were jailed pending trial on charges of conspiracy to assassinate, membership of a terrorist group, the manufacture and possession of explosive and incendiary devices, and possession of illegal arms. Then, one of the seven – Syrian refugee Suleiman Dakduk – began a hunger strike on Sept. 21. He was followed by the Spaniards Carlos Martin Martinez and Fernando Perez Gorraiz and Chapman on Oct. 5 and Spyros Tsitsas of Greece on Oct. 8. The two minors did not join in. By now, makeshift bombs made of gas canisters had started exploding in Thessaloniki and Athens, accompanied by demands that the seven be released. Protesters began to stage rallies and sit-ins. On Nov. 12, they staged a protest outside the apartment block in which the prime minister lives – while he was inside. Mainstream media were still not wildly interested in the story, other than repeating police fears of rioting during the 30th anniversary of the November 17 student uprising (very little happened). But as the hunger strike dragged on, the media began to repeat doctors’ warnings that the five were deteriorating quickly. Government officials began to press for the judiciary to do something to speed up the process of either releasing the men on bail or sending them to trial. The story reached critical mass, with front-page stories, editorials and radio campaigns, with people known for their human rights activism claiming the government was trying to strip Greeks of the right to demonstrate. The Greeks, meanwhile, have been coldly indifferent to the fate of countless people locked up without trial for 18 months on much lesser charges. Significantly, the former general secretary of the PASOK party, Costas Laliotis, who wants to make Simitis pay for sacking him, also put the boot in, accusing the party and the former public order minister (who took his place) of indifference. Laliotis was cynically undermining his own party. When a council of judges ordered the release of the seven on Wednesday, the government heaved a collective sigh of relief. A bunch of formerly masked youths had become a huge issue, likely to cost PASOK votes from its left flank. On Nov. 26, when they ended their fast, Dakduk, the Syrian, had been on a hunger strike for 66 days – the same number as IRA prisoner Bobby Sands when he died. On Thursday, the five were walking about. Relieved that tragedy had been averted, no one questioned their condition. Past decades, when political prisoners would starve to death, have given our society a blessed new humanity. That’s good, but we must wonder whether others, without the vociferous support, would have been released. It’s hard to tell whether the dramatic masks are laughing or crying.