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Athens Gags Militants

The authorities in Athens have sought to silence detained members of extremist group.
By Gazmend Kapllani

The Greek authorities have taken fresh measures to prevent media contact with imprisoned members of November 17 to avoid further inflaming US and domestic sensitivities.


After a series of highly controversial TV and newspaper interviews by November 17 suspects detained in Athens' Korydallos prison, the authorities have moved to stop prisoners contacting anyone outside their jails.


The restrictions are believed to be temporary and were enforced after the group's alleged leader, Alexandros Giotopoulos, gave a three-page interview to a local newspaper, Lamiakos Typos on Saturday, October 5.


The interview took place despite an existing ban on the group from communicating with anyone but their parents and lawyers, which was imposed after another suspect, Savvas Xsiros, was interviewed by telephone on prime-time TV last month.


Costas Simitis, prime minister and leader of the ruling PASOK party, was unambigously critical of the broadcast, warning that those who treated terrorism as a "show" would face the unanimous condemnation of the Greek people.


In his interview on Alpha television, Xsiros defended November 17's violent tactics, "I used to kill individuals because I had a greater love for the people as a whole, for those who were harmed by the actions of those individuals."


His remarks caused a storm in Greece, with many media rounding on the broadcaster and the extremist group. Even the left-leaning Eleftherotypia newspaper, once denounced as a November 17 mouth-piece, on account of having published its statements, criticised what it described as the "journalistic jungle".


The press backlash prompted an October 2 demonstration by over 1,500 members of mainly leftist and anarchist groups in Athens, at which slogans supporting violent actions by November 17 were heard.


The Simitis government has been concerned the media circus surrounding November 17 might sour relations with Washington, which have improved after a string of spectacular arrests this summer effectively broke the backbone of the anti-American extremist group.


The US has long accused Greece of turning a blind-eye to November 17. The arrest of Xsiros in July this year was the first major strike against the organisation in its twenty-seven year history, a history that includes dozens of robberies, bomb-attacks and at least twenty-five assassinations, including those of four American diplomats.


November 17's first action was the assassination of Richard Welch, the CIA station chief in Athens in 1975, a year after the fall of the CIA-backed military regime. Since some members of PASOK were involved in resisting the junta, the US has alleged in the past that the militant group survives because of the implicit support of elements within the party.


In a CBS television programme in January this year, former US ambassador to Athens, Thomas Niles complained that Athens was reluctant to deal with the extremists. "The government tolerates the terrorists because they believe it will cost them too much politically to arrest them," he said.


The same programme also cast doubt on Athens' suitability to host the 2004 Olympics, given its alleged softly-softly approach to November 17.


Televised in the US two days before an official visit by Simitis, the item drew complaints from the Greek embassy and a categorical denial from the premier of any link between his party and the extremists.


The government has presented the arrests of over a dozen suspected November 17 operatives this summer as proof to the US of its commitment to fighting violent groups. However, Simitis' urge to be a reliable ally in the "war against terror" might bring him into conflict with anti-American and nationalist elements in Greek society, and indeed, within PASOK's support base.


Nearly three decades after the fall of the CIA-backed junta, anti-Americanism is still rife in Greece. Many who are glad November 17 members are behind bars have nonetheless been appalled by speculation that they may be extradited to stand trial in America.


On August 4, US ambassador Thomas Miller would not be drawn on the subject. "I cannot speak on this issue now. Our interest is to see these people tried and to find evidence that condemns them to the heaviest sentences," he said in a Greek newspaper interview.


Washington's focus now appears to be on creating a strong legal team to represent the victims of the militants in Greek courts.


American officials have so far refrained from commenting on the media's fascination with November 17. Sources at the US embassy in Athens, however, have spoken to IWPR of their disgust at the prime-time interviews with Xsiros.


The media's fascination with November 17 will continue as long as it shifts newspapers and boosts viewing figures. The government can only hope that its move to prevent interviews with detained members of the group will pre-empt US criticism and defuse domestic tensions.


Gazmend Kapllani is journalist with Greek Public Radio and Neil Arun is an IWPR contributor.