At least a hundred Roma demonstrators blocked traffic on Greece’s national highway on Thursday afternoon outside Athens in protest at the decision to release seven police officers accused of killing a Roma man on Saturday night during a traffic stop.
The seven cops were initially arrested for investigation into the shooting, which has infuriated civil society and leftist activists and set off protests around the country. But late Wednesday night, Minister of Civil Protection Takis Theodorikakos ordered their unconditional release, leaving the police union head to brag that the seven would be back at work on Thursday morning without restrictions.
The shooting in a southern Athens suburb near the port came during a traffic stop and report of a stolen car pursued by motorcycle officers from the Greek police’s special intervention unit, known by its Greek initials DIAS. Known for aggressive conduct throughout central Athens where they often act as a quick reaction force to civil disturbances, the DIAS officers opened fire on the car and its three Roma occupants after they claimed the vehicle aggressively tried to hit the team.
More than 30 shots were fired and Nikos Sabanis, 20, was immediately killed, a 16-year-old passenger badly wounded, and another passenger, believed to be about 15 years old, managed to escape the scene uninjured only to voluntarily appear on Wednesday afternoon to talk to the media and prosecutors.
The teen, who remains unidentified because he is a minor, told media and investigators that contrary to the claims of the officers at the scene, the car had stopped and all the occupants had their hands in the air as instructed when the police opened fire.
"We were afraid they would kill us,” said the 15-year-old. "As soon as we stopped, we put our hands up and they shot us. They shot my friend and then I fell with the vehicle on their motorcycles.” This completely contradicts police statements that "their lives were immediately endangered" by the teens.
Tensions between police and the community have risen dramatically during the COVID epidemic. The Greek government’s use of long, draconian lockdowns enforced by police officers issuing large fines led to riots last March that saw both police and demonstrators badly hurt or hospitalised during large-scale protests.
Saturday’s shooting inflamed both the Roma community, and Athen’s network of hard left and anarchist activists, who clashed with police both on Tuesday and Wednesday, leading to multiple arrests and injuries, including attacks on ordinary people and shops in the Excharcia neighborhood of central Athens. Roma people face systematic discrimination in Greece and other Balkan countries as stateless outsiders who often struggle to receive official government documents.
Police from a notorious riot police unit known by its Greek initials MAT are accused of beating multiple people—both demonstrators and innocent passersby. Many incidents have been caught on tape, including one MAT officer who shouted “I’m crazy” as he smashed a shop’s windows for no apparent reason during the clashes.