The Greek government’s new policing plan for central Athens sounds like a return to the bad old days.
It includes an operation called “Operation Net” that will see some 130 armed police officers, incongruously dubbed the “Black Panthers,” patrolling metro stations in Athens.
Given Greece’s history of abusive police sweeps, Operation Net sounds alarm bells about a possible new wave of human rights violations by the police in the capital.
A 2012 crackdown in Athens known as Operation Xenios Zeus led to police detaining tens of thousands of people presumed to be irregular migrants solely on the basis of their appearance, violating human rights law. People who appeared to be foreigners were subject to repeated stops, unjustified searches of their belongings, insults, and, in some cases, physical abuse.
In research I conducted for Human Rights Watch in 2014 and 2015, I found police used identity checks as a tool to harass people they consider undesirable, such as people who use drugs, sell sex, or people who are homeless. In many cases, the police confined people in police buses and police stations for hours, even though there was no reasonable suspicion of criminal wrongdoing, and then sometimes transported them elsewhere and released them far from Athens’ center.
Greece has a duty to improve security on the streets for everyone. But the Greek authorities also have an obligation to ensure they don’t abuse people’s rights in the process. That requires appropriately circumscribed police stop-and-search powers with clear and binding guidelines for law enforcement officers so they can be held accountable for their use. Guidence should include the permissible grounds for conducting a check and for taking a person to a police station for further verification of their documents.
Police officers conducting these checks also need appropriate training and equipment. And the Greek government should ensure diligent investigations of allegations about police abuse and hold anyone found responsible to account.
To make a real difference and increase the sense of security for everyone in central Athens, without discrimination, the new government should avoid invoking problematic laws and practices on stop and search likely to make the already difficult lives for vulnerable groups on the streets of Athens much harder.