Joint European Roma Rights Center/Greek Helsinki Monitor Letter to Mr. Filippos Petsalnikos, Greek Minister of Justice
24 July 2003
On July 23, 2003, the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) and the Athens-based human rights organisation Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM) sent a joint letter to Mr. Filippos Petsalnikos, Greek Minister of Justice, expressing concern about the continuing absence of redress with respect to an incident in 2001 in Patras, Greece, and involved severe forms of incitement to racial hatred and discrimination against Roma. In their letter, the ERRC and the GHM respectfully urge Minister Petsalnikos to take measures within his legal competence to make sure that justice is served. The text of the ERRC/GHM July 23 letter follows:
Honorable Minister Petsalnikos,
The European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), an international public interest law organization which monitors the situation of Roma across Europe and provides legal defense in cases of human rights abuse, and the Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM) are concerned about the continuing absence of redress with respect to an incident which happened in 2001 in Patras, Greece, and involved severe forms of incitement to racial hatred and discrimination against Roma.
In mid-November 2001, local Patras daily newspapers, published a Letter of Protest reportedly signed by one thousand two hundred non-Romani residents of Patras, all of whom lived in the vicinity of a Romani settlement situated in the area of Riganokampos. The denouncement threatened "militant action" by residents of Eglykada, Perivola, Neo Souli and Riganokampos if the Roma were not immediately evicted from their settlement. The Letter blamed the Roma, as a group, for a litany of acts ranging from felonious to petty, including but not limited to: physical violence, arson, vandalism, theft, swearing, and even ringing doorbells. In addition, it accused the Roma of three specific crimes: a physical assault and battery, an arson attack on a car, and a forceful trespass into a local sports facility.
On May 29, 2002, with the assistance of the GHM, two residents of the Romani settlement, Ms. Maria Vasilari and Ms. Eleftheria Georgopoulou, filed a criminal complaint with the Misdemeanor Prosecutor of Patras. The complaint was directed against the local cultural associations, whose chairmen drafted and signed the Letter of Protest, and based on a Greek statute (927/1979) criminalizing acts or activities aimed at racial discrimination, incitement to racial violence, racially offensive expression, and the establishment of and participation in organizations promoting such activity.
Following the complaint, a trial was held on June 25, 2003 before a three-member chamber of the Patras Misdemeanor Court, where the plaintiffs showed that the Letter of Protest expressed racially offensive ideas and amounted to incitement to racial discrimination. As regards allegations of specific criminal acts contained in the letter and attributed to the Roma, documents obtained from the 5th Police Station of Patras established them to be patently untrue. According to the police, "there is no entry in our files concerning the perpetration of any of the alleged offenses."
Publicly blaming a group for the actions of a few individuals is irrational and blatantly racist. Calling for the exile of an entire racial group - under threat of "militant action" - for acts never committed by any of its members is, in addition, malicious and criminal.
Surprisingly, however, the court in Patras dismissed the case. The public prosecutor's motion to drop all charges stated that the defendants had no "malicious intent" aimed at the defamation of Roma and that the Letter of Protest in question was merely intended to draw the authorities' attention to the plight of the Roma themselves. This assertion is clearly at odds with the facts of the case. The Letter of Protest was in no way concerned with the problems faced by Roma, but rather expressly focused on "what it means for the [non-Romani] residents of our area to co-exist and live together with the Athinganoi." Nonetheless, and providing no reasoning for its decision, the court accepted the motion.
Finally, during the course of the proceedings the presiding judge, Ms. Eleni Koufi, made her own anti-Romani feelings perfectly clear. In response to a comment by defense counsel that Roma commit many crimes, she said "it is true" and added that there are currently "many cases pending against Roma in the courts of Patras." Worse yet, when Ms. Maria Vasilari stated that the Letter of Protest had insulted her, Judge Koufi responded by saying: "you have to admit, you Roma do steal though."
Article 4(a) of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination obliges Greece to outlaw the "dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, incitement to racial discrimination," and all acts of violence or incitement to such acts against any race or group of persons... "Under Article 4(c) Greece has pledged not to "permit public authorities or public institutions, national or local, to promote or incite racial discrimination." Article 6 binds all State Parties to "assure to everyone within their jurisdiction effective protection and remedies, through the competent national tribunals and other State institutions, against any acts of racial discrimination which violate one's human rights and fundamental freedoms contrary to this Convention. . . ." In view of the above, we respectfully submit that the Greek authorities have to date failed to comply with these standards and indeed with its own domestic legislation.
Since only a public prosecutor can initiate and conduct criminal proceedings or file appeals with respect to offences prosecuted ex officio, which includes all of the crimes in this particular case, and the local prosecutor is unlikely to reopen or appeal this case of his own accord, only a superior prosecuting authority can assure that the victims obtain adequate redress. Therefore, we respectfully urge you Minister Petsalnikos to take measures within your legal competence and make sure that this case is either reopened or appealed to a higher court, justice served, and Greece be seen to comply with the fundamental human rights and freedoms as enshrined in numerous international documents including the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
European Roma Rights Center
Greek Helsinki Monitor
Persons wishing to express similar concerns are urged to contact:
Mr. Filippos Petsalnikos
Minister Ministry of Justice,
Athens GR-115 27, Greece
Fax: +30 210 775 58 35