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Recent allegations about police abuse of protesters in Greece were saddening but not surprising – and it is vital that the government sends a strong message that it is taking the issue seriously, says Human Rights Watch

As a Greek living in London, I was saddened but not surprised to pick up The Guardian last week to read disturbing allegations that police had abused protesters in custody in the Athens police headquarters. The allegations, denied by the police, were that officers beat detainees, forced them to stand naked, burned them with cigarettes, spat at them, and sexually insulted a woman detainee.

I was not surprised, though, because police violence in Greece is not new, and justice for the victims is elusive. Since 2005, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled against Greece eleven times for failing to prevent and punish law enforcement abuse. Most recently, in January, the court found that the 2001 rape with a truncheon of Necati Zontul, a Turkish national, by a Greek border guard amounted to an act of torture. Zontul believes he was singled out due to his sexual orientation.

In March, more than seven years after the fact, an Athens appeals court acquitted two police officers of torturing – which under Greek law means causing a serious violation against human dignity – two Afghans detained at the Aghios Panteleimonas police station in December 2004. The officers had been convicted by a first instance court of subjecting the two men to acts of torture, including falanga, a form of corporal punishment in which the soles of the feet are beaten, while they were detained.

The appeals court did uphold the two police officers' conviction for violence – but not for torture – against five other Afghans in another location on the same day. The officers reportedly mistreated the Afghan nationals in a house in Aghios Panteleimonas while carrying out a police search for an Afghan who had escaped from custody. The officers were given suspended sentences of 20 months for one and 25 for the other.

Police violence during protests is also a problem, with widely reported serious incidents at demonstrations in Athens in May and June 2011, as well as in April of this year. Only one of four investigations opened in July 2011 by the Athens prosecutor's office into allegations of excessive and indiscriminate police use of force, including tear gas, during a June 2011 anti-austerity demonstration has led to charges. Two investigations are still pending while one was closed with no charges brought.

Human Rights Watch has also documented abuse by law enforcement officers against migrants and asylum seekers over the years. In the port city of Patras, in late 2011, we spoke with 17 migrants, including 10 unaccompanied migrant children – that is, children traveling without family members – who told us of police and coastguard abuse on the streets, during sweeps, and in or near the port area during the migrants' attempts to stow away to Italy.

Idris H., a 38-year-old Eritrean, told me that police officers assaulted him during a sweep operation in the abandoned factory where he lived with other migrants, a few days before we met in late November 2011. "They asked for my papers," he said. "I said I don't have papers and then they beat me and told me to not come here again. They beat me … I had fallen on the ground and they were kicking me on the hands. I was crying and when I was crying they were hitting me much more."

Idris, like so many others, never reported the police abuse because of lack of faith in the institutions and justice system. But in the case reported in The Guardian, the victims have filed a criminal complaint and the Athens prosecutor has opened an investigation. There is no internal police investigation, however. The minister of public order and citizen protection, Nikos Dendias, has said that the courts are handling the matter and that he cannot intervene.

International human rights bodies have criticised Greece over the years for not acknowledging the seriousness of the problem of police ill-treatment and have repeatedly recommended setting up a credible, independent and effective police complaints mechanism to investigate allegations of abuse.

A new office within the Ministry of Public Order and Citizen Protection to address complaints of police misconduct has not resolved the problem. Though established in 2010, the office is not yet operational and has a limited mandate, able to rule only on the admissibility of the complaints. Admissible cases will be transferred to the relevant disciplinary bodies of the security forces for further investigation, raising questions about the independence of such investigations.

No one should be abused, especially by law enforcement officials entrusted with protecting the public. Torture and other forms of ill-treatment are prohibited, and the victims of such abuses should see justice done. The Greek government needs to send a strong message to whoever abuses power by showing zero tolerance for those who engage in such acts.

Eva Cossé monitors Greece for Human Rights Watch[*]

[*]This article has been updated on October 18, 2012.

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