Denial of Justice for Roma in Greece
07 February 2004
Following a trial held on June 25, 2003, the Three-Member Misdemeanour Court of Patras dropped all charges against defendants in a case based on a Greek statute (927/1979) criminalising acts or activities aimed at racial discrimination, incitement to racial violence, racially offensive expression and the establishment of and participation in organisations promoting such activity. On May 29, 2002, with legal assistance from the ERRC and the GHM, two residents of the Romani settlement in the town of Riganokampos near Patras in northwestern Peloponesse, Ms Maria Vasilari and Ms Eleftheria Georgopoulou, filed a criminal complaint with the Misdemeanour Prosecutor of Patras. The complaint was directed against local cultural associations, whose chairmen drafted and signed a letter of protest against the local Romani community, which was published in local Patras daily newspapers in mid-November 2001. One-thousand-two-hundred non-Romani residents of Patras who live near the Romani settlement reportedly signed the letter of protest. The petition 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.
At the trial, the defendants and witnesses again voiced their anti-Romani sentiments. According to the trial transcripts, witness George Tzolas stated, "[...] Athinganoi do not work, they depend on what we hand out to them [...]." His namesake, witness George Tzolas stated, "[...] they [the Romani plaintiffs] have diseases and they steal [...]." Defendant Evangelos Christopoulos stated "[...] the Gypsy kids wander around with no permit [...] they throw stones at the cars passing by the highway [...]."Defendant Alexios Davlouros claimed, "These people [the Roma] are hungry, they pillage, live off our area, they do not work [...]." During the trial, 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 fifth Police Station of Patras and presented to the court established them to be untrue. According to the police, "there is no entry in our files concerning the perpetration of any of the alleged offences."
Despite the sentiments expressed by the defendants and the witnesses, 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.
During the course of the proceedings, Ms Eleni Koufi, the presiding judge, revealed her own anti-Romani feelings. In response to a comment by defence 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, "you have to admit, you Roma do steal though."
On July 23, 2003, the ERRC and the GHM sent a joint letter to Mr Filippos Petsalnikos, the Greek Minister of Justice, expressing concern about the continuing absence of redress with respect to the 2001 letter, which the two organisations consider to be a severe form of incitement to racial hatred and discrimination against Roma. The ERRC and the GHM also urged Minister Petsalnikos to take all measures within his legal competence to ensure that justice is served. The Minister's Office subsequently informed orally the ERRC and the GHM it had forwarded the letter to the Supreme Court Prosecutor's Office, the authority competent to pursue a motion of cassation; the latter did not act on it.
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, as well as all acts of violence or incitement to such acts against any race or group of persons of another colour or ethnic origin [...]." 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 [...]." The ERRC/GHM Greek country report and an abundance of further information on the human rights situation of Roma in Greece are available on the ERRC's Internet website at: www.errc.org.
(ERRC, GHM, SOKADRE)