Friday, 11 December 2009
Demonstrations in Greece are a near-daily affair, and like the Greeks, they often turn testy. But in the past week, with Athens gripped by a spasm of violence which left the ancient capital bruised and the rector of the University of Athens bludgeoned nearly to death by militant youths, Greeks have begun asking the obvious: “Why?”
Part of the answer goes back to 1973 when the then military junta ordered tanks to storm the gates of the Athens Polytechnic, crushing at least 23 students protesting against the regime. The bloody revolt precipitated the fall of the dictatorship and the restoration of democracy.
But among the legacies of the Polytechnic uprising are an enduring resistance to law enforcement; a long tradition of far-left political violence and a law forbidding police from setting foot on university or school campuses – a ban unknown to the rest of Europe.
Now, academics and concerned citizens are increasing calls for authorities to revise – if not scrap – the so-called asylum law which in recent years has allowed extremists to seek haven within university campuses, turning them into launching pads for their offensives against police.
“This has to stop,” said Ioannis Karakostas, a professor of law and deputy rector of Athens University. “These extremist elements are abusing the law to suit their own agendas and not the founding spirit of the law, which is to shelter and shield free thought.”
The rector, Christos Kittas, was attacked last Saturday when about 100 masked anarchists stormed the soaring green gates of the university – seizing control of the marble neo-classical building amid violent riots sparked during demonstrations commemorating last year’s police shooting of Alexandros Grigoropoulos, 15.
Because of the law, thousands of officers and riot police stood idle, watching youths destroy the building, tear down the Greek flag, set it ablaze and then hoist a black-and-red anarchist banner over the university’s rooftop. The televised scenes sent shock waves across the country, fanning debate on the controversial asylum law.
“I felt dead inside watching people who could be my grandchildren or students commit crimes and vandalise the shrine of free thought,” Mr Kittas said on Wednesday.
To the fury of the “anarchists”, the board of directors at Athens Law School have proposed a raft of bold measures to shield the institution from further attacks including student identification cards intended to ward off militant intruders.
But the protests by students are unlikely to die down. Greece’s recession-hit economy is in dire distress – two international rating agencies have just downgraded its credit rating. Years of debt-fuelled consumption, corruption, and lax fiscal policies have left the country drowning in red ink and a huge constituency of disaffected youth; complaining about ailing education and an unemployment rate racing towards 20 per cent.