(Athens) – Greece’s new government should move quickly to tackle longstanding human rights violations.
Critical human rights priorities include combating racist and xenophobic violence, reforming police practices and ensuring accountability for police abuse, and remedying serious human rights violations related to migration and asylum.
“Key ministers have made important commitments to change abusive laws and practices, raising hopes that campaign pledges will become reality,” said Eva Cossé, Greece specialist at Human Rights Watch. “The Tsipras government should seize on its strong mandate to push through necessary reforms as soon as possible.”
Addressing gaps in law and practice to tackle the epidemic of racist violence in Greece, particularly in Athens, should be a top priority. Greece has taken some positive steps in the past two years, including establishing specialized police units to tackle racist violence and appointing a special hate crimes prosecutor in Athens.
A 2014 anti-racism law increased minimum penalties for hate crimes and improved the scope and application of racist motivation as an aggravating circumstance. But the new law failed to remove significant obstacles to effective investigation and prosecution of hate crimes.
The new justice minister, Nikos Paraskevopoulos, has rightly pledged to amend the 2014 law and to strengthen training about racism and xenophobia for magistrates and prosecutors. Prosecutors should be required to investigate bias as a possible motive in a crime and to present any evidence of bias to the court. Courts should be also required to consider evidence of bias motivation, and to explain the reasons for applying or not applying a penalty enhancement for bias crimes.
The government should amend the law to encourage reporting of hate crimes by explicitly exempting victims from paying a fee to file their complaint. The law should also incorporate measures that currently exist only in a ministerial decree, to protect undocumented migrants who are victims or witnesses to a hate crime.
The measures protect migrants from any negative immigration law actions pending a prima facie assessment by a prosecutor of the merits of the complaint about the attack. Human Rights Watch research has shown that fear of detention and deportation and the fee deter some victims of racist attacks from filing a complaint.
The authorities should also revise hate crime legislation to expand protection to those targeted because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. The legislation should also acknowledge explicitly that those responsible for crimes sometimes have mixed motives, and make clear that multiple motives should not preclude investigating and prosecuting a case as a bias crime. The mandate of Greece’s anti-racism police units, created in March 2013, is limited to offenses committed exclusively because of the victim’s racial or ethnic origin or religion.
Abuse by the police is another key concern, and the new government’s pledge to abandon the anti-immigrant police operation Xenios Zeus is a positive step. Citizen Protection Alternate Minister Giannis Panousis should also put an end to abusive police sweep operations against other groups perceived as unpopular in downtown Athens, including drug users, sex workers, and the homeless.
Human Rights Watch research found that police in Athens conduct abusive stops and searches, and in many cases confine people in police buses and police stations for hours, including far from the city center, without any reasonable and individualized suspicion of criminal wrongdoing.
Working with the justice minister, Panousis should propose legislative reform to limit overly broad police stop-and-search powers, and ensure that police stops are conducted in accordance with national and international law prohibiting discrimination, including ethnic profiling, ill-treatment, and arbitrary deprivation of liberty. The authorities should adopt clear and binding guidelines for law enforcement officers with respect to identity checks, including the permissible grounds for conducting a stop, a pat-down, and search of personal belongings, and for taking a person to a police station for further verification of their documents.
Finally, Panousis needs to ensure diligent and independent investigation and accountability for all complaints of police abuse by improving human rights training, and establishing an independent complaints mechanism. Law enforcement abuse of migrants and asylum seekers in Greece is a serious and longstanding problem, including in the context of identity checks, as documented by Human Rights Watch and others.
The European Court of Human Rights has condemned Greece 11 times in cases concerning ill-treatment or misuse of firearms by law enforcement officers, and the absence of effective investigations. In 10 of the cases, the victims were migrants or members of minorities.
The new Greek government should take concrete steps to uphold its pledge to address chronic deficiencies in the country’s asylum system, pushbacks of asylum seekers at land and sea borders, and prolonged detention in substandard conditions. Despite reforms over the past few years, asylum seekers in Greece face obstacles applying for protection, significant delays in the processing of claims, and virtually nonexistent reception conditions.
There is mounting evidence and expression of concern by the UN refugee agency that Greek border guards push back and expel migrants and asylum seekers at the borders with Turkey, and engage in ill-treatment and dangerous maneuvers at sea that put people’s lives in danger. The new government should immediately take steps to end unlawful pushbacks. Parliament should exercise its oversight powers to examine the scope of these illegal actions, determine whether they have amounted to a de facto policy, and identify those responsible.
Following the suicide of a Pakistani man in the Amygdaleza detention center on February 13, the government vowed to keep its election pledge to shut down migrant detention centers within the next three months. Prior to this incident, the government had already announced the end of immigration detention beyond the 18 months permitted by EU law. Migrants and asylum seekers, including children, are systematically detained, often in appalling conditions, for prolonged periods. Since December 2013 alone, the European Court of Human Rights has condemned Greece eight times for inhuman and degrading conditions in immigrant detention facilities.
The government should invest in alternatives to detention, including reception centers, and integration measures.
“The Tsipras government has a lot on its plate now as it attempts to renegotiate the country’s debt,” Cossé said. “But taking concrete steps to address terrible human rights abuses affecting some of the most vulnerable people in Greece is no less a priority.”