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Greece: Minorities Face Rough Justice

Judiciary's failure to prosecute a policeman for killing an Albanian migrant is said to typify the injustices suffered by minorities in Greece.
By Gazmend Kapllani

Over a year after the fatal shooting of Gentjan Çelniku in an Athens café, the Greek policeman who killed the 20-year-old has yet to be brought to justice.


An immigrant from Albania, Çelniku was shot in the head during an identity check. His murder was one of several cases of police brutality against members of minorities in Greece, highlighted in a report published by Amnesty International and the International Helsinki Federation in September.


The respected Athens daily Kathimerini has warned that the number of violations could exceed the 38 cases investigated by Amnesty because Albanian immigrants are often too afraid to report attacks against them.


As an EU member, Greece certainly has the legislative framework to deal with crimes of this nature, yet in practice law enforcement officers have rarely been brought to justice. Even those who have been tried or convicted have faced only nominal punishment, such as a suspended prison sentence.


Gentjan Çelniku's sister Rajmonda is already resigned to the fact that her brother's killer will get off lightly. " A year after the killing nothing has been done, so I don't expect much of this investigation," she said.


Ioannis Rizopoulos, the policeman who shot Çelniku, was charged with "reckless homicide", which carries a prison sentence of five years to life. Despite the gravity of the charge, Rizopoulos was immediately released on bail and has not been suspended from duty.


Accounts of the incident vary. At a hearing before an investigating judge on November 23, 2001, Rizopoulos testified that when he saw Çelniku reach into his jacket pocket, he approached him, warning him not to move. Çelniku then kicked his hand, causing his pistol to discharge. This was in direct conflict with an earlier statement in which he claimed the gun had gone off accidentally as he attempted to handcuff the young man.


The police authorities ordered an inquiry, but a joint report by Amnesty International and the International Helsinki Federation criticised the way it was conducted. "The investigating judge declined to summon witnesses - including eye-witnesses - who gave statements to the police during the preliminary investigation and, as a result, certain important facts have not been clarified," said the report.


Greek Helsinki Monitor confirms that the inquiry relied mainly on statements from colleagues of Rizopoulos, who were likely to be biased in his favour. Attempts by the police to present the victim as a dangerous criminal seem to bear this suspicion out.


When the public prosecutor presented his case to the court on July 2002, it was claimed that Çelniku had been carrying a knife in his jacket, although no details were supplied.


But Greek Helsinki Monitor, which is acting on behalf of the victim's family, says that prosecutors are ignoring the testimony of Antonis Karras, an eyewitness who passed the cafe shortly after the shooting.


Karras testified that he saw police search the body and remove a knife from a back trouser pocket or a sheath attached to the belt. Shortly afterwards, he saw the blade being handed over to a police commander. And as the body was removed from the scene, it was placed on the spot where Çelniku had lain.


For the police officer who had shot Çelniku to then participate in the collection of evidence, even handling the knife in question, was a clear contravention of the rules of procedure. A superior officer later testified that he had reprimanded Rizopoulos for this, but the evidence in question appears not to have been compromised in the eyes of the public prosecutor.


The latter has already reduced the charge against Rizopoulos from reckless homicide to the lesser charge of manslaughter, said Panayote Dimitras of Greek Helsinki Monitor. "Considering how this and other cases concerning minorities have been handled so far, I suspect Ioannis Rizopoulos will get away without spending even a single day in prison," he added.


Though limited, the official figures available for the prosecution and conviction of policemen for torture or ill-treatment seems to bear his suspicion out. Between 1996 and 2000, there were 163 complaints - 121 were dismissed and 42 criminal investigations launched. But not a single police officer has been convicted for such offences.


Official police figures released in March 2001 revealed that 43 disciplinary proceedings were carried out in 2000 against policemen charged with the following offences: violations of human dignity; use of psychological intimidation; and inflicting physical injury. Only one officer was found to be at fault and he was fined.


The Greek interior minister Evangelos Malesios has denied that minorities are subject to police brutality, or that any cases have been covered up. "Greece has one of the lowest incidents of human rights violations in the world. We have an independent justice system and we respect its decisions," he told the Greek press.


However, some commentators would argue that Athens' refusal to acknowledge any human rights abuses is part and parcel of a more general refusal to acknowledge the rights or existence of minorities. Although the country has longstanding indigenous Slav-speaking, Vlach, Roma and Albanian minorities, Greeks still cling to an outmoded "Balkan" notion of a homogeneous nation, which must resist the impingement of other ethnic groups.


From the early 1990s, social and demographic trends have changed dramatically, as the populations of neighbouring Balkan states were able to emigrate in large numbers for the first time since 1945. Unofficial estimates put the number of immigrants now in Greece at around 800,000, of whom half are illegal. Albanians form by far the largest group of around 350,000 to 400,000, with Bulgarians and Romanians making up the remainder.


"During the last decade, Greeks have begun to realise that we are not really a homogeneous society at all, and this has provoked strong feelings," Greece's assistant ombudsman George Kaminis told the daily paper Eleftherotypia, in a tacit admission of the problem.


His candid observation was borne out by a delegation from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, whose report noted that during a visit to law enforcement institutions "the delegation could not fail to note the disrespectful attitude displayed by some officers when referring to detainees, particularly those of Albanian origin".


The Amnesty report lists five other cases where police officers were prosecuted for killing or fatally wounding members of minority communities. Three of the victims were Roma, one was a Serb and another a Greek, included because the officers later told an investigating judge, "We thought he was some gypsy."


Meanwhile, Rajmonda Çelniku spent the first anniversary of her brother's murder in Greece, waiting for his assailant to be brought to justice. "My parents in Albania have been driven to distraction by this tragedy. I can't wait to leave Greece and I won't be in a hurry to come back. We really are at the bottom of the pile here," she said.


Her experience seems to be typical for the grieving relatives of victims of police brutality. For them, the Greek justice system is a long and winding road that leads nowhere.


Gazmend Kapllani is an independent journalist based in Greece and Jeta Xharra is a freelance journalist in London.


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