Police Killing of Young Roma Man Sparks Riots in Athens

Rioting against police brutality has erupted after a notorious police motorcycle unit opened fire in pursuit of three young men in a car, killing one.
Photo: Nikolas Kokovlis/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Riot police used tear gas against protesters in Athens after a 20-year-old Roma man Nikos Sampanis was killed by police in pursuit of a car. Photo: Nikolas Kokovlis/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Protestors clashed with riot police in central Athens for a second straight day on Tuesday after a 20 year old Roma man was shot and killed in a hail of bullets from a police motorcycle unit with a reputation for violence.

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Tear gas and flashbang grenades were used by riot police near the anarchist stronghold of Excharcia in central Athens, as students from adjacent universities led by Greece’s vibrant hard left and anarchist community demanded justice for the shooting of Nikos Sabanis. With two other Roma teenagers, Sabanis is alleged to have stolen a car for fun on Saturday night, before being pursued and shot at multiple times by a police motorcycle team in an Athens suburb. 

Police initially claimed that they opened fire on the car after seven officers were injured when the driver backed the stolen vehicle into the pursuing police motorcycles. An estimated 30 rounds were fired at the car. After discovering that police had in fact reported no injuries in the incident before opening fire, on Monday an Athens judge ordered the seven police arrested for homicide.

A 16-year-old riding in the car was hit in the stomach and remains in critical condition in an Athens hospital, while a 15-year-old passenger escaped both the car and the scene unharmed. He is yet to turn himself in.

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Riot police at a demonstration following the police shooting of a young Roma man in Athens on October 25. Photo: Konstantinos Zilos/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The incident has brought protesters out onto the streets.

Tuesday afternoon’s clashes followed a night of fighting that saw protestors throwing gasoline bombs at riot police from rooftops as officers fired various forms of non-lethal rounds in response, in addition to distributing violent beatings. Leftist groups reported members arrested and hospitalised after Monday night’s street combat.

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Local media reported that the police Special Intervention Team (SIT), a motorcycle-deployed group of police who respond to specific violent incidents, was responsible for Saturday night’s shooting in the Perama neighbourhood of the suburban port of ​​Piraeus. 

The team is believed to have switched its communications from radios to the Viber messaging system on smartphones to ensure their communications remained secret. The revelation alarmed one Greek police official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter. He told VICE World News it was “clearly to prevent superiors and the media from hearing their orders and operations.”

“Today’s information, that the unit used an encrypted messenger system instead of the radios as is the proper procedure, is infuriating,” said the police official. “This special intervention unit operates through its own command and now we have learned that command is given in secret.” On Tuesday, the official said SIT received a new Viber message from their commanders: Stay away from Roma communities and only make arrests with the central commander’s approval.

With more than 270,000 Roma residents, a distinct ethnic group that speaks Romani or Sinte common to eastern Europe and the Balkans, that mostly live in around 70 suburban settlements around the country, Greek police have often been accused of brutality towards a community that has long been denied political rights in the region, according to the Council of Europe.