Tides of relief emanated from Greece on Wednesday, when the anarchist prisoner Nikos Romanos ended his month-long hunger strike that sparked solidarity actions across the globe. His demands were essentially met, with the parliament decreeing that student prisoners will be allowed educational leave on certain conditions, including electronic security tagging.
Romanos’ desperate struggle against an intransigent government brought up international memories of Bobby Sands and the other Irish republican prisoners who died in 1981. Now his victory, suggesting that the extreme right-wing Samaras government may be on its last throes, shows what a huge influence a person can have when they are unafraid to risk their own life and when they are backed by a resourceful solidarity movement.
Video report by Ross Domoney:
Romanos, 21, carries a tragic past. In December 2008, his childhood friend Alexis Grigoropoulos died by his side after having been shot, in cold blood, by a policeman. This 15-year-old became the symbol of an entire generation which, with alarming premonition, foresaw the social catastrophe that was soon to be unleashed on Greece. Alexis’ death galvanized and radicalized the youth. No surprise that Romanos, who at 15 years of age carried his friend’s coffin on his shoulder, decided to battle against the state.
In February 2013, Romanos was arrested along three other youths for attempted bank robbery. Witnesses and the public prosecutor agreed that the arrestees did not use their weapons out of concern for the hostages’ safety. After their capture they were all tortured so brutally, that the police digitally edited the photos given to the press so as to mask their injuries.
While serving his sentence, Romanos studied for the national university entrance exams, and thus secured a place at a university. The Minister of Justice visited his prison in September to grant, on behalf of the Greek state, an educational achievement award to him and other inmates. Romanos at the time was protesting against the appalling conditions within the prison, never received the award, and explicitly refused any favors from the state.
Despite awarding Romanos for his efforts in entering university, the state forbade him to actually attend it. Protesting for the law granting inmates educational leave to be enforced, Romanos started a hunger strike on November 10. The legal grounds for withholding his leave are convoluted. The Greek penal system includes educational leave in the framework of the rehabilitation of prisoners, but the Justice Ministry argues that a terrorism suspect cannot be safely let out of prison, even if Romanos has already been acquitted once for the terrorist charges against him.
Few doubt that the young anarchist was refused educational leave as a punishment for his ideas, by a government eager to show that it will not tolerate radical dissent. Romanos demanded from the state, which he intensely abhors, that it recognize his legal rights, which the state is supposed to guarantee for all. He never stole from the public purse nor from citizens; rather he attempted to rob one of the banks which was never brought to account for its part in the economic debacle of the country. No one failed to notice the irony of young anarchists being brutally persecuted for an unsuccessful and bloodless bank robbery by the very same people who treat those convicted of large-scale theft of public money and violent crimes with utmost lenience.
Examples abound. A corporate media and business tycoon who embezzled 235 million euros from the ex-state owned Postal Bank was released on bail, and even visited the US, Paris and the Maldives while his bail terms forbade him from exiting the county. A banker convicted of embezzling 700 million euros from the now defunct Proton Bank, and also facing trial for homicide, was left free to roam by the very same prosecutor who denied Romanos educational leave.
Two electricity company owners facing trial on embezzling 270 million euros from the state were also released on bail, thanks to the legal acumen of their defense attorneys, who just happened to be the Government Speaker at that time, Makis Voridis, and the then Secretary General of the Government, Takis Baltakos. A shipping magnate and oil tycoon sentenced to five years in prison for tax evasion and various other unlawful activities was immediately rewarded with the ownership of the most profitable public company in Greece, privatized at a fire-sale price. Finally, one of the accomplices of Grigoropoulos’ murder was released on bail after just one year in jail, on “humanitarian grounds,” to deal with family difficulties.
The Minister of Justice himself, Charalambos Athanasiou, has often made moves characterized as extreme-right, bigoted, and even venal. He never managed to explain the considerable property he amassed while holding public positions, property he even failed to declare, thus breaking the law — but this was no problem, as he soon changed the law and made it legal. He consistently hindered controls on other high earners with unexplained incomes; he legislated in favor of embezzlers of public money; and he even tried to get most of the convicted drug wholesalers out of prison with a law catering especially for them.
Athanasiou furthermore provoked an international outcry when he snubbed the European Court of Human Rights that had condemned Greece for refusing elementary rights to same sex partners. A further irony, that does not escape the polarized and intensely politicized Greek society, is that he maintained his inhuman stance towards Romanos while his own father — a collaborator of the Nazi occupiers during the Second World War — owed his life to the leniency showed to him by communist partisans.
The Minister of Justice greatly contributed to the heightening of tensions during the past few days. He stoked fears that Romanos might escape, while Romanos had agreed to be tagged during his leave. Romanos’ teacher in prison, actually the head of the prison education service, even proposed to escort the young convict to classes himself, and guaranteed his prompt return to the jailhouse, to no avail. Romanos refused to follow distance courses from within the prison walls, an idea beyond the logistical capabilities of the Greek system, denouncing it as an attempt to chip away at the right of prisoners for leave permits. But during the last month the government clearly cared more about publicly humiliating Romanos than about keeping him alive.
On Monday, December 8, Romanos’ father met with Prime Minister Samaras, who rebuked his pleas on the grounds that a Prime Minister cannot obstruct the course of justice. Actually Samaras has governed the country by bulldozing through austerity and repressive measures, using decrees with no concern whatsoever for the constitution or any other legal obstacles. How else could the state, for example, refuse to implement the court ruling that the cleaners of the Ministry of Finance building be re-hired, following their unlawful redundancy?
On Tuesday, December 9, the Supreme Court refused to overturn the lower court’s decision that refused educational leave to Romanos. With the government rebuking any alternative to distance learning from within prison walls, the parliamentary discussion on Tuesday descended into mayhem. On Wednesday, the 31st day of his hunger strike and with his demands still unmet, Romanos escalated his fight by starting a thirst strike, as an act of refusal to further dilute prisoners’ rights. The danger for his life was now imminent.
Minister Athanasiou had stated: “Even if God Himself were to descend to earth, He couldn’t change this decision.” We do not know who proved more mighty than God Himself, but the fact is that the Greek government — hell-bent on humiliating and thwarting all dissidents, as well as outright beating them — was obliged to make a costly and humiliating U-turn.
A day earlier, it had announced a change of plans for the forthcoming election of the President of the Republic, that may soon lead to a SYRIZA government. Political games played on the back of Romanos might have something to do with this. Seeking alliance with the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn to scrape together the necessary votes for electing the President, the government had its tactics exposed in Parliament and rejected by Golden Dawn. Its plans to score political points by claiming that the hated Memorandum days are over were further foiled on Monday, when the extension of the international bailout was agreed by European Finance Ministers.
On the back of a mounting public outcry, with masses of people gathering in solidarity outside Romanos’ hospital, tensions rising, and time running out, Athanasiou brought the amendment to Parliament on Wednesday, and Romanos stopped his hunger strike. On the other hand, the government still ignores the 300 Syrian refugees who are also on hunger strike on the Parliament’s doorstep; it is still introducing high security prisons fit for an era of austerity and repression; and it still finalized the purchase of Israeli drones for border and protest control. But these may be the government’s last days, while Romanos’ brave and principled stance in prison brought results beyond his wildest dreams. All in all: a big victory for Romanos’ and his comrades’ struggle.