(London) - The Athens public prosecutor's decision to investigate allegations of excessive use of force by the police during recent public protests in Athens is a positive step, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should conduct a parallel review of police tactics during the protests to ensure that future operations do not interfere with the right to protest peacefully, Human Rights Watch said.
Credible reports from civil society activists, media reports, and photographic and video evidence reviewed by Human Rights Watch suggest that members of the national police used excessive force during the protests on June 28 and 29, 2011.
"The Greek police have a duty to uphold public order, but people also have a right to protest peacefully," said Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The prosecutor's investigation should be coupled with a government review to ensure that future police operations achieve both objectives."
Since mid-May 2011, there have been daily demonstrations in Syntagma Square in Athens, opposite parliament, to oppose the austerity measures introduced in response to the country's financial crisis. The demonstrations peaked on June 28 and 29. While the protests have been largely peaceful, there have been violent confrontations between the police and small groups of protesters.
The police were attacked with bottles, rocks, and Molotov cocktails, and about 130 officers were injured, according to police sources quoted in the media.
But the evidence reviewed by Human Rights Watch indicates that the police response was disproportionate. Police repeatedly and apparently indiscriminately sprayed large amounts of teargas, including in the entrance of the metro station at Syntagma where many protesters had taken refuge. The police also beat people who were not involved in the violence with batons.
Media reports said that Red Cross volunteers in Syntagma square and at the metro station estimated that more than 500 injured protesters were taken to hospitals or given first aid by the Red Cross team there.
The Athens first-instance prosecutor, Eleni Raikou, opened the inquiry on July 1, following complaints from the president of the Association of Pharmacies of Attica, Konstantinos Lourantos, about the extensive use of teargas. Lourantos has described the indiscriminate use of teargas as "criminal."
The prosecutor's office told Human Rights Watch on July 6 that it opened an investigation into four issues involving the police: the extensive use of teargas; their failure to arrest armed men; beatings of citizens; and complaints by the Athens University Rector that police entered the university area and threw firecrackers and teargas toward people seeking shelter there.
The Assembly of Bar Association Presidents and the Athens Medical Association are among those in Greece who have publicly questioned the use of force by the police against the demonstrators.
"The Greek police have a duty to respond to protesters who engage in violence and prosecute those who break the law," Ward said. "But to prevent abuse, the use of force by police has to be tightly controlled and those who exceed it held to account."
Audiovisual footage shows officers beating demonstrators and throwing teargas canisters at them, apparently indiscriminately. The footage also shows teargas being used in confined spaces such as the Syntagma metro station, which people who experienced it said caused suffocating conditions and led some people to pass out. Witnesses contacted by phone told Human Rights Watch that the use of teargas in the Red Cross medical center prevented treatment of the injured.
On July 4, the National Commission of Human Rights said the authorities should permanently end the use of teargas during demonstrations because of concerns about continued misuse.
The citizen's protection minister should conduct an immediate review of police tactics during demonstrations, particularly in relation to the use of teargas and other force, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch said that the Citizen Protection Ministry should issue an order to state security forces making clear that abusive treatment will not be tolerated and that officers of all ranks who are responsible for such practices will face disciplinary action, including potential dismissal and criminal prosecution. Police officers under criminal investigation for the alleged abuses should be suspended from duty, Human Rights Watch said.