Greece: 17 November in the dock - Unjust justice in Athens


from Le Monde diplomatique, May 2003

17 NOVEMBER IN THE DOCK - Unjust justice in Athens by GILLES PERRAULT

EUROPEAN groups that had used armed violence through the 1970s gradually disappeared. But the Greek group, 17 November (17N), did not give up. As the "leaden years" of domestic terror groups, including the Red Army Faction in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, the Fighting Communist Cells in Belgium and Direct Action in France, were displaced by terrorism practised by outsiders, 17 November persisted. It became an myth that obsessed the intelligence community.

The CIA and MI6, which both had operatives gunned down in Athens, tried and failed to get rid of it. The Greek police were unable to penetrate it. No information about its membership ever filtered out. This "unidentified terrorist object" circled in an orbit so singular that most books on terrorism, whether sensational or scholarly (1), simply did not mention it.

This singularity is the result of a national history in itself exceptional. Greece is the only Western European country since the second world war in which a military coup established a dictatorship. The colonels' junta ruled there from 1967 to 1974 and only a defeat by the Turkish army in Cyprus brought it down. "Political change" (which was the expression then in vogue) did not purge it, as it was hoped. 17N, formed after the collapse of the colonels, won sympathy when it executed police torturers that the new democratic regime had promoted.

The CIA hand in the original 1967 coup was so apparent that attacks against United States agents in Athens hardly caused a stir. But over time 17N's actions - assassinations of industrialists, elected figures, Turkish diplomats and a rightwing journalist opposed to the colonels - became incomprehensible even to its sympathisers and odious to the public. When these acts were claimed, the hardline language used suggested an obtuse chauvinism. 17N, within its peculiar political autism, continued assassin ations (23 in all), bombings and heists.

In the summer of 2002 a 17N bomb exploded prematurely, seriously injuring the bomber and collapsing the organisation spectacularly after its long invulnerability. There were confessions, mutual denunciations and a rush to take advantage of amnesty laws: many hardboiled 17N members crumbled quickly like petty delinquents. The political adventure turned into a tale of human demoralisation.

The 17N trial, which began on 3 March, could have been a useful model, dismantling terrorism outside any social movement. But it will be merely sensational. For the investigation happened in a media frenzy, almost a witch-hunt, with threats against defence lawyers and the few journalists who dared to write of the right to a fair trial. It was quickly understood that this right was to be denied.

During the initial hearings by the judge, police officers replaced lawyers. Conversations between the defendants and their lawyers were bugged. The government decided that the trial should take place in a special court composed exclusively of magistrates, but 190 out of 220 Greek magistrates were excluded in advance from the draw that is part of the system. All these shenanigans were so unsuitable to a functioning democracy that Turkey rightly demanded that its own rather rough justice system should no longer be criticised. The trial of the 19 supposed 17N members made plain the incoherence and inadequacy of an investigation thrown together in six months: a short preparation for what Greek journalists call "the mother of all trials".

There are many explanations for the coming judicial disaster. Intent on avenging its agents, the US has been pressuring the Greek government, which is itself keen to finish the matter by the opening of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. But the main explanation has to do with the struggle between good and evil after 11 September 2001, which has meant sacrificing individual rights to security imperatives.

Greece is no isolated case here. On 25 August 2002 there was France's abrupt policy turn over Italian exiles, with the extradition of Paolo Persichetti, sentenced in Italy to 22 years for his moral implication in a political assassination. And the Athens trial comes well after the political monstrosity that is the US prison at Guantanamo Bay. It is in keeping with the climate of attacks on civil liberties as a reaction to 11 September. It seems that the defence of democracy justifies stamping all over the elementary rights that are inseparable from democracy.

The dock appearances of Yannis Serifis and Theologos Psaradellis are cases in point. Both deny, as have others, any involvement with 17N and no proof of membership has been provided. As a Trotskyite and committed internationalist, Psaradellis would have little affinity with 17N's strictly nationalist ideology. He admits taking part in a 1983 savings bank heist in Athens, in which no shots were fired. 17N never claimed responsibility for it. The goal of this expropriation, which Psaradellis now considers a political error, was to finance the publication of the works of Pandelis Pouliopoulos, the man who introduced Trotskyism to Greece. This quaint motive, which would be dismissed as amateur by any terrorist organisation, matched his unusual behaviour: he left being lookout to help a stricken, pregnant employee of the bank. He has been treated as a gentleman in the Athens press.

Serifis, a leading trade union figure, condemned 17N's methods and also what passed for its political line several times. Towards the end of the 1970s Greek police tried to implicate Serifis in an act of violent terrorism. He was eventually acquitted after a spectacular trial, with the help of human rights organisations and powerful inter national support.

Psaradellis and Serifis are well known in Greece for their part in resistance against the colonels. Psaradellis, after being arrested and tortured, escaped by picking his cell lock with a spoon, like the French resistance hero in Robert Bresson's film Un Condamné à mort s'est échappé (The Condemned Man Has Escaped), and, after a flight worthy of the Count of Monte Cristo, made the Turkish coast in a dinghy. He crossed into Bulgaria, where the authorities immediately handed him back to the Greek police. After the Greek military judge's remark on the solidarity of their Bulgarian communist comrades, Psaradellis delighted the European far left with his reply: "Your Honour, your task is to judge me. It will be up to the Bulgarian workers to settle their own accounts with the Stalinist bureaucrats of their country." Psaradellis escaped a second time, finding asylum in France, where he established unshakeable friendships

Strangely, the pasts of these two might just make up for the total lack of proof against them. Some people see those who fought the junta as paving the way for terrorism. To the ex-torturers and henchmen of the colonels, now hired as media experts, Psaradellis's heroism proves that he is "capable of anything".

This subverting of political and human real ities can only perplex observers. In a trial where all accused, innocent or guilty, should be able to count on democratic guarantees, it is clear that any conviction of Psaradellis or Serifis would amount to a judgment on the Athens judges.
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* Gilles Perrault is the author of many spy and crime novels including Garçon aux yeux gris, for which he won the prix Simenon in 2001, 'The Red Orchestra' (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1969) and The Secret of D-Day (Little, Brown & Co, London, 1965).

(1) See as examples of both approaches, Claire Sterling, The Terror Network, Henry Holt & Company, New York, 1981, and Michel Wieviorka, The Making of Terrorism, University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Translated by Jeremiah Cullinane

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