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(Athens) – Police in Athens frequently harass and abuse homeless people, people who use drugs, and sex workers, Human Rights Watch said today. Police stops and arbitrary detention of people who live or spend considerable amounts of time on the streets of downtown Athens interfere with their access to healthcare and support services.

The police stop and detain people who are homeless, who use drugs, and sell sex in the city center as they walk down the street, wait for a bus, or visit a day center where they can eat, clean up, or get support, Human Rights Watch found. Police even stopped outreach workers and a Human Rights Watch researcher on several occasions, detaining them and strip-searching the outreach workers during one stop.

“The new government has made important commitments to change its approach to policing in the center of Athens, but concrete legal and policy reforms are needed to stop these abuses,” said Eva Cossé, Greece specialist at Human Rights Watch. “Pursuing and detaining people for no good reason is a waste of Greece’s scarce resources and makes no sense.”

In early February 2015, shortly after coming to power, the government of Alexis Tsipras announced the end of abusive anti-migrant police sweeps in Athens. Human Rights Watch had documented abusive stops and searches, police ill-treatment, and arbitrary deprivation of liberty during the sweeps. On April 6, the alternate minister of citizen protection, Giannis Panoussis, emphasized the need for a non-repressive approach to issues of social exclusion, including by supporting vulnerable populations such as the homeless.

Yet the Hellenic Police has presented a new policing plan for the center of Athens that includes targeted operations against people suspected of engaging in illegal trade such as selling pirated or copyright-protected products, using or selling drugs, or begging. “Women sex workers” would also be targeted, although sex work is not illegal. The new plan raises concerns that without the necessary reforms, longstanding police practices – including physical abuse, discrimination, arbitrary detention, and harassment – will continue, Human Rights Watch said.

Between May and September 2014, Human Rights Watch conducted in-depth interviews with 44 people living or spending considerable amounts of time in the city’s center, including homeless people and people who said that they used drugs and exchanged sex for money. Additional interviews with outreach workers and conversations with six people from the same groups in April indicate that abuses have not stopped under the new government.

Those interviewed in 2014 described being stopped frequently by the police for identity checks, often taken to police stations and held for hours and sometimes moved to police stations in remote areas and released there. They said they seemed to be targeted for their appearance rather than for anything they had done. Some described physical abuse by the police, and almost all said they had been treated rudely, insulted, and threatened. Since the new government took office, the practice of transferring people to police stations far from the city center, which was never formally acknowledged, appears to have stopped.

Greece - Sex Worker

A sex worker in Athens. Many women selling sex on the streets fall afoul of the strict regulations governing legal sex work and face daily harassment by the police. © 2014 Human Rights Watch

Eirini, 39, who is enrolled in a methadone program, told Human Rights Watch in September 2014: “Wherever you’re coming from, wherever you’re going, without any grounds, and without provoking anyone, you are always, always going to be taken to the police station.”

Human Rights Watch observed police in downtown Athens who appeared to be using broad stop-and-search powers to target people and to hold them for long periods, amounting to unjustified deprivation of liberty. Officers held people in the street, confined them in police buses, or detained them in police stations for hours, including in police stations far from the city-center, without any reasonable and individualized suspicion of criminal wrongdoing.

The new government’s police plan, the Special Operational Policing Plan for the Municipality of Athens, does not specifically address these practices, raising concerns that abuses may continue, Human Rights Watch said.

Police round-ups and transfers to central police stations and other parts of the city interfered with the ability of those stopped to access social services, public health prevention, and medical care. Twenty-one people described situations in which police stops had a direct or indirect negative impact on their right to health, including interfering with their access to a doctor and necessary medication, as well as to services and information on HIV prevention, methadone, and other prescription drugs.

Greece has a duty to improve security on the streets for everyone. However, the intensity of the mistreatment and identity checks against marginalized groups raise serious concerns about whether the means to achieve those legitimate aims are necessary and proportionate, Human Rights Watch said. International and national law prohibits discrimination, arbitrary deprivation of liberty, unjustified interference with the right to privacy, and violations of the right to health and physical integrity. International and national standards also require police to treat everyone properly.

The Greek government should tightly circumscribe police stop-and-search powers to require an individualized suspicion of wrongdoing, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should adopt clear and binding guidelines for law enforcement officers for identity checks, including the permissible grounds for conducting a check and for taking a person to a police station for further verification of their documents.

The government should also issue clear guidance to police officers on the use of force, clarifying the prohibition on unjustified force. The government should provide training specifically relating to treatment of homeless people, people who use drugs, and sex workers, including the need for non-coercive referrals to health and social services. The Greek government should also ensure diligent investigations of allegations about police abuse of members of these groups and hold anyone found responsible to account.

The government should also intensify its efforts to address homelessness in the center of Athens by ensuring that people who use drugs are not excluded from government or municipal shelters, Human Rights Watch said. A blanket prohibition on active drug users accessing homeless shelters, and the failure to provide alternatives has exacerbated the situation and has proved counterproductive.

Statistics the Hellenic Police provided to Human Rights Watch on Operation Theseus, which began in July 2014 to target crime, and was replaced on April 1, 2015, by the new policing plan, suggest that identity checks are a blunt, largely ineffective tool. From mid-July to December 2014, the police detained 42,454 people under Operation Theseus. The police subsequently made only six arrests for begging among all those stopped, 365 arrests for offenses related to sex work, and 194 arrests for violations of drug laws.

The fact that less than 1.5 percent of detentions led to an official arrest gives rise to the concern that the police may be using profiling. Intelligence-led stops should lead to a higher crime detection rate. As police statistics do not include the many people stopped for a quick identity check in the street and released on the spot, the overall detection rate is likely to be even lower.

“Life on the streets is hard enough without police abuse,” Cossé said. “Instead of the police harassing and detaining destitute people living on the margins of society, the Greek government should help people get the services and care they need.”

Crisis in the Capital
Over the last five years, the global economic crisis has been particularly severe in Greece. In March 2014, Cephas Lumina, then UN expert on foreign debt and human rights, said that austerity measures and structural reforms had led to “increased unemployment... homelessness, poverty and social exclusion (with approximately 11 per cent of the population living in extreme poverty), and severely reduced access to public services, such as health care and education.”

There are no reliable government data on homelessness, drug use, and sex work. However, the widespread assessment among nongovernmental organizations providing services, residents, and public officials is that the number of people living on the streets, using drugs, and exchanging sex for money or goods has increased. Many people, including the majority of those interviewed, fall into two or all three of these categories.

The National Center of Documentation and Information on Drugs, the Greek focal point for the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, estimated in 2012 that 7,651 people had injected drugs in the month prior to the study, similar to its estimates for the three previous years.

According to the Greek Therapy Center for Dependent Individuals (KETHEA), an independent public agency that is one of Greece's biggest drug therapy programs, 60 percent of women drug users approached by their outreach workers in 2013 reported selling sex in exchange for drugs or life necessities such as food. Over 40 percent of all drug users, both men and women, said they were homeless, up from 35.2 percent the year before and 24.5 percent in 2010. Lumina, the then UN expert, pointed to a 25 percent increase in homelessness generally since 2009, citing estimates by nongovernmental organizations of at least 20,000 homeless people in Greece in 2014.

Greece - Homeless Man

A homeless man sleeps on the street in Athens with a sign reading, “I’m homeless and I’m asking for a little help, Thanks.” © 2014 Human Rights Watch

People who use drugs are excluded from government and municipality-run homeless shelters. Despoina Laskaridou, president of the National Center for Social Solidarity (EKKA), the body in charge of homeless shelters under the Labor Ministry, told Human Rights Watch that candidates need to provide proof that they can take care of themselves, that they do not use drugs or abuse alcohol, and that they do not have active pathologies, including depression. Candidates have to undergo a series of medical examinations, including for hepatitis C, HIV, and tuberculosis.

“We shouldn’t put drug users in the same category as homeless,” she said. “Drug users are not the responsibility of EKKA.”

But Iordanis Pertetsoglou, the head of KETHEA’s day center in Athens for active drug users, said it is important to provide them with shelter. “[I]f we want to intervene and improve these peoples’ lives even slightly, this is the minimum that we must guarantee,” he said. “We can then build everything else on that: take care of their health, provide the right treatment.”

The failure of successive Greek governments to adopt coherent drug policies, provide shelter for homeless drug users, and more recently the economic crisis, have changed the image of the Athens city center. Parks such as Pedion tou Areos, which reopened in 2010 following a multi-million-euro renovation, have become a refuge for the homeless, people using drugs, and other groups affected by the economic crisis.

Pertetsoglou, from KETHEA, described an “unreal” situation in the Pedion tou Areos park: “I saw hundreds of users in a small area, in a part of the park shooting up…. [A]t the same time people were jogging…walking their pets, elderly and parents with their kids. And a bit further down, children were playing ball.”

Greek law does not criminalize sex work or homelessness, but it does include vague administrative and criminal offenses that affect people selling sex and the destitute. A person engaging in sex work on the street without a work permit may be fined up to €3,000. Drug sales, possession, and use are criminalized. Anyone begging “routinely,” or due to “laziness” or “greediness” can be sentenced to up to six months in prison and/or fined up to €3,000.

The previous government of Antonis Samaras responded to concerns about the situation in downtown Athens with a series of police operations to “clean up” the city center. Operation Xenios Zeus, targeting irregular migrants, began in August 2012, while Operation Theseus began in July 2014 to target crime, particularly drug use and offenses associated with sex work.

These operations relied heavily on overly broad police powers to stop people, require them to provide proof of their identity, and take them to police stations for further verification. Identity checks on the street require a significant investment of police resources and time, with many officers detailed to conduct stops on the street, transfer people to police stations, verify their identity, and check whether they have a criminal record. Those conducting the stops are often low-ranking and less-trained police staff called police guards.

The government of Alexis Tsipras has indicated it will take a different approach. In early February, shortly after coming to power, the government announced the end of Operation Xenios Zeus, effective immediately. Human Rights Watch had documented abusive stops and searches, police ill-treatment, and arbitrary deprivation of liberty in the context of this operation. In a press conference on policing in the Attica region held on April 6, 2015, Alternate Minister of Citizen Protection – the minister in charge of the public order portfolio – Giannis Panousis emphasized the need to minimize social exclusion and support vulnerable populations such as the homeless.

However, Operation Theseus was replaced by a new policing plan for Athens, announced in early April, that includes targeted operations against individuals suspected of engaging in illegal trade such as selling pirated or copyrighted products, using or selling drugs, and begging. Also targeted are “women sex workers.” Without legal reforms to circumscribe police stop-and-search powers, clear guidance and training for police officers, and accountability for abuse, the homeless, people who use drugs, and sex workers will remain vulnerable to police harassment and violence.

Discriminatory Stops and Arbitrary Detention
Overly broad police stop-and-search powers, combined with orders to target specific social groups, have enabled repetitive, unjustified stops of drug users, sex workers, and the homeless.

Thirty-six of those interviewed said they were stopped by the police almost every day, while 25 said they had been stopped for an identity check more than once on a single day. People interviewed said that police officers regularly harassed them, stopping them without any specific suspicion of wrongdoing and conducted intrusive searches. The police beat and yelled at the people they stopped, and held them for long periods, interfering with their ability to get services, including going to medical appointments or obtaining necessary medication.

Many said they felt they were stopped because of their appearance and presence in downtown Athens rather than their behavior. This was especially the case in the Omonoia neighborhood, an area with many social and health care services, including programs for people living with HIV or seeking drug dependency treatment. The interviewees said police who stopped and detained them never referred them to voluntary health or social services and instead interfered with their ability of seeking the services.

Eirini, 39, who is enrolled in a methadone program, told Human Rights Watch in September 2014: “Wherever you’re coming from, wherever you’re going, without any grounds, and without provoking anyone, you are always, always going to be taken to the police station.”

Greece - Eirini

Eirini, a 39-year-old woman who is enrolled in a methadone program, describes abuse by the police. Law enforcement abuse in Greece is a serious and longstanding problem, including in the context of identity checks. © 2014 Human Rights Watch

Fotis, 38, who said he has been living on the streets for 18 years, said the police stopped homeless people as they tried to enter or leave day centers: “They [the police] tell you, ‘Please, come with us, it will only take five minutes.’ It’s a lie. The five minutes become three hours in the police station. The three hours can also become the full day.”

Georgia, 33, who is enrolled in a buprenorphine program for drug users, believes the police are trying to clean up the city center. At the end of July 2014, Georgia spent two-and-a-half hours in police custody in two different police stations. “I asked why they [the police] are doing this and they said, ‘So that you stay away from Athens….’ I felt humiliated.”

Anna, 33, who said she sold sex to support her drug habit, said that in 2014 police were stopping her at least three or four times a day. She said that three days before the interview, in May 2014, three police officers in civilian clothes stopped her in the Omonoia area of downtown Athens:

I went to the hairdresser to book an appointment. I’m coming out of the hairdresser and they stop me. They came and told me, ‘Your papers, we’re taking you in for verification of ID.’… They are doing it to clean up Omonoia…. They are telling us to not come to Omonoia. [They stop me] all the time, every day. Now they even know me by my first name.

Stella, 33, who uses drugs, said she started selling sex two years ago when she lost her job at a supermarket and became homeless. At the time of her interview in May 2014, Stella was living in a hotel in downtown Athens known for sex work activity. She said she was stopped by the police more than five times in a single week:

They talk to you in the worst possible manner. They call you a whore, dirty, without any reason…. All this is happening because supposedly they want to clean the center of Athens. I’m explaining to them that I live in the center, at the hotel. Their response is, ‘I don’t care, go live on a bench.’

Efrosini, 29, started using drugs 16 years ago. She said that two days before we spoke, in July 2014, she had been stopped outside a shop near Omonoia square and taken to the police station for identity verification three times within two hours by the same police officers. She said she was there to buy a new charger for her phone, but “They [the police] thought I was prostituting myself…. They told me, ‘We don’t want to see you there again.’”

Giannis, 47, who is homeless, uses drugs, and who lives with hepatitis C and a number of other health problems, said he was convinced the police stopped him because of his appearance:

I don’t have other clothes. What can I do? Because I must come here to survive. So that I don’t go out and steal, I’ll go and eat at the soup kitchen [in Omonoia]. When I go to the soup kitchen and they see me, they take me in to the police station ...You show your ID, and despite that…they will take you to the police station…. And then you will be transferred [to another station far from the city-center] for another verification. It’s happened five or six times in a row…for verification while you have your ID [on you]. God help us.

Numerous other people also said independently that they had been transferred from the central Omonoia police station to police stations in remote areas of the Attica region, such as Elliniko, Amydgaleza, Elefsina, and Aspropyrgos.

Giannis said he had been stopped while on his way to the KETHEA day center and detained for hours while in withdrawal. He said he thought he was going to die:

[One of the police officers] said, “We’re taking you in for a simple verification of ID.” I said, “Guys, please: I’m going to the program, I’m going to see a doctor because I have problems.” They took me first to the 4th police precinct [Omonoia] where I stayed for four hours. They verified my identity; I gave all my details as soon as I got in. I was waiting, waiting, for four hours. I was dying. I asked, “Help, take me to a hospital. Do something please.”

Instead, the police transferred Giannis to Elliniko police station, 11 kilometers from the center, then released him around one o’clock in the morning. He waited another four hours on a bench until public transportation started running again, and within an hour of returning to the city center was detained again by the same officers. “I told them, ‘Shame on you. I don’t have anything else to say.’”

Only a handful of the identity checks described to Human Rights Watch led to arrest or prosecution for offenses related to sex work, drug use, or other offenses, suggesting that police in the center of Athens were determining whom to stop on grounds other than a reasonable and individualized suspicion of criminal conduct.

Greece - Police Car

A police car on the side of the road in Athens. Overly broad police stop-and-search powers, combined with orders to target specific social groups, have enabled numerous unjustified stops of drug users, sex workers, and the homeless. © 2014 Human Rights Watch

Under Greek law, the police have the authority to stop anyone on suspicion that a crime has been or might be committed, and to conduct searches of persons, bags, vehicles, and public spaces for preventive purposes. In areas designated by the police as “suspicious public areas,” officers may conduct stops and searches without any grounds. The police may take people to a police station if they do not have proof of their identity, have identity documents the police believe require further verification of their legal records, or, because of the place, time, and circumstances, as well as their behavior, create suspicion that they have committed or intend to commit an offense.

Vassilis Ntoumas, a senior official in the Hellenic Police Guards Union of Attica, said that the police operate on the basis of orders and quotas, often driven by politicians rather than policing needs. “[H]ypothetically speaking…if some foreign minister were to pass by Patission street, the orders are to ‘clean up’ Patission Street. To ‘clean it up,’ exactly those words, for it to be beautiful and civilized for one person to pass by.” 

A police officer participating in sweep operations and regular checks in the city center, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Human Rights Watch in September 2014 that he sometimes received orders to bring in only drug users or sex workers. Nonetheless, he said, he did not detain people without specific cause: “I’m bringing in 20 people for whom I have a real suspicion [that they committed an offense], and out of them only one is a drug user.”

In separate meetings with Human Rights Watch in September 2014, three senior officers at the Headquarters of the Hellenic Police and the Omonoia police station commander, Vassileios Rokkos, all denied that people are transferred from police stations in the city center to distant police stations. While this practice appears to have stopped since this research was conducted, the frequent police stops, harassment, and detention in central police stations for identity checks appear to continue.

Police officials did not deny detaining people in central police stations to verify their identity.

Commander Rokkos said it made sense to conduct identity checks on people who use drugs, and take them to the police station, because of the criminal nature of that activity and the need to verify whether there is an outstanding court decision or a warrant against the person. “On the street, we can’t verify [the identity and the legal records], they could give fake details.” he said. He said that seeing a person approaching a group of suspected drug users is “suspicious” and justifies a police stop because “the most obvious thing” is that drugs are being sold.

Physical and Verbal Abuse
Fifteen of those interviewed described physical abuse, including beatings, while almost everyone interviewed complained of poor police practices and rude, insulting, and threatening behavior.

Aphroditi, 28, who said she sold sex to support her drug habit and pay for the hotel room where she lives, told Human Rights Watch that in March 2014 a police officer called her a whore and physically abused her when she was stopped for an identity check:

They put me in the police bus. I asked to which police station they are going to take us in a polite way because I had to go back [to my job]. They didn’t answer my question. Because I raised my voice a bit, one of the three [police officers] said, “Shut up, bitch”… They took us to Egaleo [police station] and… the [same] cop…came and gave me a very hard slap. My glasses fell down and my mouth bled. And he was saying all the possible swear words that exist and he was acting mad. His colleagues didn’t say anything. He checked our identity at the police station and within 20 minutes we were free to go.

Nikkita, a 28-year-old transgender sex worker from Bulgaria, said a police officer at the Omonoia police station slapped her, injuring her eye, because she resisted being transferred to another police station far from the city center for an identity check. Nikkita was taken to the police station along with 18 other people, including some other transgender sex workers. When Human Rights Watch interviewed Nikkita, two days after the incident in June 2014, she had visible injuries on her eye and arm.

Nikkita said it was not her first encounter with this police officer and that he often insults her and says she should “go back to her country.” The same police officer told a Human Rights Watch researcher that Bulgarian transgender sex workers “have diseases, they are criminal elements, they take drugs, and they came from their country to do all this here.”

Eirini, 39, a former drug user enrolled in a methadone program, said a police officer from the Omonoia police station slapped her hard enough to break two teeth after she resisted being transferred to another police station far from the city-center late at night. When she asked why she had to go, an officer told her “that we would go on a short trip so that we learn our lesson and not go downtown again…One thing led to another. This policeman punched me and I started bleeding and had two teeth broken.”

Hamid, a 24-year-old undocumented migrant from Afghanistan who uses heroin and is homeless, said that in April 2014 police officers kicked him as they were trying to move him from where he was sleeping: “They kicked me five to six times. They gave me a kick [so hard], I lost my breath. They were hitting me all the time.”

Anastassis, 45, a former army officer, said he has injected heroin for the last 11 years to cope with his job loss and living on the street. He recalled how humiliated he felt when eight police officers forced him to bend over in the middle of the street for a rectal examination with a flashlight, and then beat him when he objected:

They looked at my behind. They told me to open it and they looked with a flashlight. I had to bend over. And they were laughing…. He [one of the police officers] took my head and was hitting it against the shutter. He kicked me. I had some syringes, he broke them. He threw away my papers. I had a photocopy of my ID and he ripped it because he said it was not valid. And he said, “If I see you again, I’ll force the torch [flashlight] inside [you].”… I was saying that I have an injured leg and it was like telling him to hit me on the injured leg. Wherever I was saying I was injured, that’s where he was hitting me. And they were laughing.

None of those interviewed reported the violence to the authorities. Nikkita and Eirini said they would like to file a complaint against the officers, but would not because they did not trust the police. Eirini feared that she would end up being charged with resisting authority, while Nikkita did not believe anything would come of a complaint.

International human rights bodies have criticized Greece over the years for not acknowledging that police ill-treatment is a serious problem and have repeatedly recommended setting up a credible, independent, and effective police complaints mechanism to investigate allegations of abuse. The Ministry of Public Order and Citizen Protection created an office in 2011 to address complaints of police misconduct, but 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 concerns about the independence of such investigations. In early April, Panoussis, the citizen protection minister, said the complaints office would begin functioning soon, but did not announce any changes to its limited mandate.

Policing Impact on the Right to Health
People who use drugs, sex workers, and homeless people often experience extreme destitution and health risks. Police round-ups interfere with the ability of these groups to access the health information, medical care, and other services they need, and to exercise fully their right to health. These policing practices undermine the work of independent public agencies like OKANA (State Organization Against Drugs) and KETHEA, or nongovernmental organizations such as Praxis, Doctors of the World, or Positive Voice and its outreach program Athens Checkpoint in providing direct services to these vulnerable groups.

OKANA and KETHEA run day centers in downtown Athens where people can drop by, wash their clothes, shower, cook, socialize, see a doctor or a social worker, receive equipment for safer injections, or get information about drug dependency treatment options. Many of those interviewed, particularly those who were homeless, said that these centers are places where people can get respite from the harsh daily reality of life on the street and receive the support they need. However, interviewees described being repeatedly picked up by the police while going to or leaving such centers.

Pertetsoglou, the head of KETHEA’s day center in Athens for active drug users, said policing practices in downtown Athens had a negative impact on beneficiaries of these services.

Greece - Homeless Shelter

The storeroom of the Doctors of the World night shelter for homeless people in Athens, providing beds, a warm bath, and a place for them to wash their clothes. ©2014 Human Rights Watch

Twenty-one of the people interviewed described situations where police stops interfered with their enjoyment of the right to health, including their access to a doctor and necessary medication, as well as to services and information on HIV prevention, methadone, and other prescription drugs. Pertetsoglou said:

We have become used to it; they [the police] sometimes perform ID checks in front of the center. Arrest someone in front of the center…. [T]hey [drug users] miss important appointments. That happens repeatedly. It may be an appointment related to a program or a doctor's appointment. This is serious. These are people who need help and [should not] be permanently receiving violent treatment.

Anna, the HIV-positive women who said she sold sex to support her drug habit, said that on June 9, 2014, she missed taking her antiretroviral pill when police officers stopped her near Omonoia square at 8.30 p.m. and detained her for a couple of hours, first in Omonoia and then in Piraeus, 11 kilometers away.

Dimitris, 58, who has mental health problems, is enrolled in a methadone program, and is living on the street, said two policemen stopped him at Stadiou Street in downtown Athens on July 31, 2014, and destroyed his sleeping pills prescribed by an OKANA doctor. Since then, Dimitris has carried a note from his doctor that says the pills are prescribed legally.

Nemir, a 40-year-old Iraqi undocumented migrant who is an HIV-positive homeless drug user, said in July 2014 that two months before we spoke police stopped him as he was going for a medical examination. They detained him in two police stations for over twelve hours and destroyed his clean needles. “Because I am HIV-positive I have my own needles in order to not transmit [the virus] to anyone else. Just to harass me they broke them.”

Giannis, the man with serious health problems who is living on the street, said on July 31 that a police stop the day before had prevented him from keeping a surgery appointment for a serious abscess on his arm:

They destroy all your day, all your program, your health…I said [to the police officer], “You have taken me in 15 times you, yourself. You know who I am. You know there is no pending court decision or anything against me. Please let me go to do my surgery, I have an appointment with the doctor.” I said I have a problem, a serious one, and I showed it to them…He didn’t even consider it. He told me sit where you are. And I missed my surgery.

I was dying from the pain…. I tried one hundred times to tell them, “Please guys I have a problem.” No one was listening to me. The appointment was at 10 a.m. Then they verified my identity, and they released me and I went there [to the hospital] but the doctor had left…. And do you know what I did because of my despair? I broke the abscess on my own. 

Carolos, 31, who injects heroin and is homeless, said he has been on a waiting list for a buprenorphine program since 2012. He said he felt desperate after the police stopped him on two occasions when he was going to KETHEA to get information about entering a rehabilitation program. The second time, in June 2014, he said one of the police officers slapped him, and he missed the appointment because he was transferred to the police station of Exarchia for verification of his identity:

It fucks your psychology completely because you make a decision and you say I’m going to do a move [to quit drugs] and suddenly it’s like they destroy these feelings, the courage. After that incident it took me a long time to go [again to KETHEA]. It affected me because the police also slapped me. I felt a weird hatred inside me and I said, “I’m not going to the program or anything.”

Ioanna, 37, an HIV-positive drug user, said in August 2014 that she had missed numerous meetings with OKANA due to police stops. “I am trying to fix my life and they [the police] are not letting me do it,” she said, breaking down in tears.

Since the beginning of 2011, Greece has had a sharp increase in new HIV infections among people who inject drugs in Athens. According to the Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of new infections among people who inject drugs rose from 12 in 2010 to 241 in 2011, 522 in 2012, and 262 in 2013. In a risk assessment on the HIV situation in Greece published in January 2013, the European Center for Disease Control (ECDC) cited the shortage of needle-distribution – 15 syringes distributed per injecting drug user each year – and restrictions on opioid substitution treatment – a four-year waiting list in Athens – as contributing factors. The ECDC said the authorities should take urgent steps to bring the average waiting time for opioid substitution treatment to less than two months, as well as to expand syringe distribution programs to provide at least 200 syringes a year for each injecting drug user.

KETHEA told Human Rights Watch that virtually all the drug users who came to its day center for drug users in Athens between October 2013 and May 2014 said they had health problems but had limited or no access to public health care. Four out of 10 said they lacked health insurance, 1 in 10 reported that they were HIV positive and 3 in 10 said that they had hepatitis C. The proportion of drug users affected by these and other diseases may be even higher than KETHEA’s findings indicated, as many said that they had not undergone medical tests.

Police Interference with Outreach Workers
On five occasions between May 28 and June 26, 2014, a Human Rights Watch researcher witnessed the police stopping outreach workers from Athens Checkpoint, an HIV-prevention group, from distributing condoms in downtown Athens.

Greece - Outreach Workers

Outreach workers from Athens Checkpoint, an HIV-prevention group, talk to a homeless drug user in Athens. There is a blanket prohibition on active drug users accessing government and municipality-run homeless shelters. © 2014 Human Rights Watch.

On May 28, 2014, different police officers stopped two outreach workers accompanied by the Human Rights Watch researcher twice within 10 minutes. During the second stop and search, the police found an antiretroviral pill among the belongings of an HIV-positive outreach worker. One of the officers shouted aggressively, “Who has AIDS, who has AIDS? Is it you?” in the middle of the street. After the workers complained about the officer’s behavior, police took the Human Rights Watch researcher and the outreach workers to the Acropolis police station for verification of their identity. Stergios Matis, one of the outreach workers from Athens Checkpoint described the incident:

We explained who we were. That we had only just been stopped and checked five minutes ago, in front of the Omonoia police station. Afterward we tried to explain to them that they were keeping us from our work and that we had a specific task to perform as volunteers, and they couldn't understand that…When we reacted, the policemen responded that they would take us down to the police station, so that “you can see what can happen to you, what we can do to you.” We went down to the police station, we were stripped, we were made to bend over to see if we had drugs or not. They knew we were clean, because they knew who we were and what we did. They only did it as a show of power.

The Human Rights Watch researcher was not subjected to a body search.

The police officers threatened to file charges against the outreach workers for “insulting authority” because the workers called the police officers “uneducated,” due to their lack of knowledge about HIV, while the outreach workers threatened to report the incident to the media and file a complaint for breach of privacy. Eventually, both the station duty police officer – who had not been involved in the stop – and the officers’ direct supervisor acknowledged the lack of awareness about HIV among the police and pledged to start discussions with Athens Checkpoint about potential training on HIV. After an hour, the team was released.

On June 25, 2014, a team of police officers, some in uniform and others in civilian clothes, stopped three outreach workers from the Athens Checkpoint and a Human Rights Watch researcher on Satovriandou Street outside hotels where the outreach workers had just distributed condoms. One of the officers had been part of a team who also had stopped them on June 18, 2014. As soon as the outreach workers passed the police, the police officer who had questioned them the week before said in an aggressive way: “Guys come here, and give me all your IDs now! All of you!” One of the outreach workers complained, saying, “Every week the same thing.” The officer answered, “Yes, every week, every day, every hour, every moment.”

Greece - HIV/AIDS Prevention

A volunteer from Athens Checkpoint, an HIV-prevention group, restocks free condoms in downtown Athens. Since 2011, Athens has had a sharp increase in new HIV infections among people who inject drugs. © 2014 Human Rights Watch

The workers identified themselves as being from Athens Checkpoint, and the Human Rights Watch researcher also identified herself. The police officer threatened to take everyone to the police station. He asked for an official paper with a stamp from Athens Checkpoint as proof of their work. One of the outreach workers said again, “Every week you are doing the same thing,” and the officer replied, “And I will continue doing it until it's solved.” The police allowed the team to go five minutes later after one of the team members mentioned the name of a high-rank police officer who had advised outreach workers to use his name if police officers stopped them.

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