35,000 people took to the streets of Athens on Monday night to commemorate the anniversary of the bloody 1973 Athens Polytechnic anti-junta uprising. They were joined by more than 10,000 people who held a rally at the same time in the city of Thessalonica. Both rallies had one thing in common: they were smothered by the presence of riot police. According to reports, more than 7,000 police were deployed in the streets of Athens to "safeguard" and "monitor" the march.
Human rights violations by police officers during demonstrations are a commonplace occurrence in Greece, and Monday was no exception. Police clashed with students, passers-by and demonstrators in the Athens district of Exarcheia late on Monday night. About a dozen people were injured by riot police according to local media reports, including two VICE journalists Antonis Diniakos and Alexia Tsagkari, who had been covering the events in Athens.
Alexia Tsagkari, who was filming the demonstration for VICE News, was attacked by riot police in downtown Athens outside the Hilton building, after clashes broke out between the anarchist bloc and the riot police. A policeman hit Tsagkari on the head with a baton, before dragging her along by her hair while a second policeman kicked her to the ground.
After the mass march in Athens came to an end, VICE Greece received reports that riot police had made excessive use of teargas in the district of Exarheia. Amnesty International has noted in the past that this is commonly used by police forces in Greece during demonstrations, in clear violation of international standards.
Things quickly spun out of control, with reports of police violence against pedestrians and journalists pouring in, including one of an attack on a German Erasmus student whose bloodied face has appeared all over the internet.
"Gangs of riot police soared through the narrow streets of Exarcheia on their bikes, batons in their fists, terrorising local residents and protesters", VICE Greece's News Editor Diniakos reported. Policemen allegedly raided a kiosk in Exarcheia Square injuring two people who worked there.
The attack on Diniakos occurred when he confronted a group of Delta and Dias motorcycle police brigades he says were harassing a group of pedestrians.
"The riot police squads surrounded them and one of them raised his baton to intimidate the group. I ran to record the incident with my cell phone at which point a riot police officer hit my leg with the front wheel of his motorbike. I shouted at them to stop. Three police officers started running towards me, throwing me on the ground. They held me by the throat and hands. The police stopped hitting me only after my colleagues provided them with our IDs, that indicated we were accredited journalists", says Diniakos.
One more journalist from MEGA TV was attacked by cops. A criminal and disciplinary investigation has been ordered into the attacks against reporters.
The rally came a few days after the PanHellenic high-school occupations and protests and last week's riot police attacks that resulted in the injury of two university students. VICE spoke to the injured students last week, who told us that the attack on them was "unprovoked" and "unnecessary".
VICE Greece journalist Kostas Koukoumakas, who was on the ground in Thessaloniki, reported that "the riot police presence was so strong that, for the first time in many years, protesters stopped the march several times demanding that the police leave the demonstration. The protesters chanted continuously in vain, 'Get the police out of the rally now'. Clashes between the police and the demonstrators broke out moments later. The riot police threw tear gas at the crowd, who escaped through the nearby streets".
Far from being the exception, the use of excessive force by police forces and the human rights violations that occur, have become the norm. Journalists are of course not immune to this. But, the violence that is geared towards journalists, is a special kind of violence that holds a specific purpose, that of censoring the press.
The decision to keep using the police as a means of suppression is a political one. It is high time Greek authorities acknowledged this, and stopped allowing the riot police squads to act like gangs of hooligans terrorising the streets of Greece. It seems unlikely that they will, as last night after the rioting, the Minister of Public Order, Vassilis Kikilias, visited the Athens police headquarters, to congratulate the police on a job well done.