(Athens) – The trial of three people for the September 2011 assault on an Afghan asylum seeker in Athens is a sobering reminder of increasing racist violence in Greece, Human Rights Watch said today. The trial, scheduled to begin on December 12, is the first of its kind since 1999 even though racist violence in Athens has increased over the last two or three years, reaching alarming proportions in 2011.
In the current trial, two men and one woman are accused of brutally beating and stabbing Ali Rahimi, a 24-year-old Afghan asylum seeker, in Athens on September 16. Rahimi and two other Afghans say the accused were part of a larger group of about 15 people who surrounded them in the Aghios Panteleimonas neighborhood in the city center.
“The prosecution of this vicious attack sends an important message, but it is the tip of the iceberg,” said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “If the authorities responded properly to racist violence, this trial would be one of many instead of a rarity.”
ThePakistani Community of Greece documented attacks on 60 Pakistani men in the first three months of 2011. In April, a large group of people attacked the Somali community center, injuring 10 Somalis and destroying the center.
After foreigners were accused of killing a Greek man in May, far-right extremists rampaged through immigrant neighborhoods in the center of Athens, leaving at least 25 people hospitalized with stab wounds or severe beatings. A man from Bangladesh was found dead, but it remained unclear whether he had been the victim of a racist attack. Though the violence continued for a number of days, no arrests were made, and the Athens prosecutor’s office told Human Rights Watch that no suspects had yet been identified.
Migrants and asylum seekers interviewed by Human Rights Watch speak of virtual no-go areas in Athens after dark because of fear of attacks by vigilante groups. Yunus Mohammadi, the president of an association of Afghans in Greece, said he has begun showing newer arrivals a map of Athens with a red line around areas they should avoid.
“This is exactly what I used to do in Afghanistan with the Red Cross about places people shouldn’t go because of fighting,” he told Human Rights Watch. “And here I am doing the same thing in a European country.”
Rahimi, the victim of the September 16 attack, was hit on the head with a bottle and stabbed in the chest and back, suffering a puncture to the lung dangerously close to his heart. He was rushed to the hospital. The other two Afghan men managed to escape, and one later identified two of the alleged suspects to the police. Reza Mohamed, one of the two, told Human Rights Watch that he was then detained by the police after the alleged attackers made false accusations against him. Mohamed was put in the same police station cell with the three alleged attackers, who he said mocked him and took pictures of him with their cell phones.
Rahimi told Human Rights Watch recently that he has been very careful about where he goes since the attack and avoids specific areas.
“Right now the fear is that the state cannot protect us,” he said. “If the government does not intervene things will get much worse.”
Victims of racist violence in Greece face daunting obstacles to seeking justice, Human Rights Watch said. The police discourage victims by insisting they pay a 100 euro fee for filing an official complaint, even though the police have an obligation to record complaints and inform the prosecutor before any fee is paid. It is the prosecutor who ultimately decides whether the fee, which was instituted in late 2010 to discourage frivolous complaints, is applicable or whether the prosecutor’s office is obliged to initiate an investigation.
Undocumented migrants fear they will be detained and subject to deportation for reporting crimes against them. Police bias also appears to be a serious problem. Migrants and asylum seekers have told Human Rights Watch that they have been turned away when they try to seek help and have alleged that the police have failed to intervene while attacks were under way.
Since 2008, Greek criminal law has included a provision that makes racist motivation an aggravating circumstance in attacks, and judges have the discretion to impose the maximum penalty allowed for a crime when racist motivation is proven. The Athens prosecutor’s office told Human Rights Watch, though, that they were unaware of any sentences in which a Greek judge had used this provision.
The government reported only two hate crimes in 2009 and one in 2008. No figures were available for 2010. Two cases prosecuted in 2009 appear to have involved accusations of incitement to hatred or discrimination under a 1979 law. In the 1999 case, the last such crime prosecuted, a Greek man was given two life sentences for killing two migrants and injuring seven others.
In response to the government’s failure to identify racist attacks and prosecute suspected attackers, the National Commission for Human Rights – an independent advisory body – and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees established a network of nongovernmental organizations to systematically record racist attacks. The first results of the pilot project, begun in October 2011, are expected in early 2012.
Some Greek government officials have begun to acknowledge the problem. In May, the mayor of Athens condemned what he called political violence by extremist groups in some parts of the city and accused the police of inertia in combating right-wing attacks on migrants.
The Ministry of Citizen Protection, effectively the Greek Interior Ministry, then promised to put in effect a “zero tolerance” policy toward such violence and to protect the rights of “minorities and disadvantaged citizens.” Minister of Citizen Protection Christos Papoutsis has announced steps to improve training of law enforcement officers in recording and combating racist crimes. But that has not stopped the attacks.
On December 6, the government proposed a draft measure to tighten Greek laws on speech that incites hatred, discrimination, or violence. The measure is aimed at complying with European Union laws on hate speech.
Greece has had a dramatic increase in immigration over the past two decades. Chronic deficiencies in its immigration and asylum system, as well as social tensions and xenophobia, have been exacerbated by the economic crisis.
“There is no excuse for allowing people to be chased, beaten, and stabbed because of where they come from or how they look,” Sunderland said. “Greek authorities need to crack down on vigilante groups now.”