Friday, 27 March 2009

Greece: Where democratic ideals go to die

Today is a broken record day. You know the drill. Don’t tell me I didn’t warn you.
Nothing is special about today. But it’s as good a time as any to take (yet another) look at the motherland. So. Where are we?

Katerina Goulioni is dead. Don’t rake your brains. She’s not a famous artist or politician. She was a substance abuser, prison inmate and activist – trying from her cell to end the prison guards’ right to submit inmates to vaginal searches at will. She’s dead and nobody will tell us exactly how she died.
Inmate Giannis Dimitrakis was savagely beaten in prison by ‘Periander’ a notorious fascist agitator, finally behind bars.
We get it.
Inmates have no rights. They betrayed the sacred bond of citizenship when they broke the law and the system is punishing them in more ways than one.
We get it.

But what about the rest of us?

Well, it depends.
On your skin colour – as racist attacks are reported all over Greece and courts reduce the sentence imposed on ‘Periander’, racist attacker extraordinaire.
We get the message.
So earlier this month a Nigerian man is stabbed to death and it doesn’t even make the news and an Afghan migrant ‘strangles himself’ in his cell while students attack a group of Pakistanis in central Athens. Nothing at all ensues. Conditional rights. We get it.

It also depends on your sexual orientation. Only a week ago, a bar in Athens’ Exarcheia neighbourhood was attacked by hooligans screaming bloody murder against homosexuals. Naturally they attacked everyone in the bar, regardless of tastes in the bedroom. No-one was arrested. We get that too.

Is that all?
Well no, as the country’s flagship mental health hospital is virtually non-functioning as it’s understaffed by over 50% and a man gets beaten up by riot police for asking a question (you don’t believe me? Check out for yourselves), rights seem to depend on a million and one things.

So where did we get to?
Rights are not for everyone. Prisoners, immigrants, homosexuals, the mentally ill and people who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time may suffer. But the rest of us are ok, surely. Right?

Well, that also depends.
On whether a policeman armed with a stun-gun takes a shot at you with his Taser possibly causing permanent muscle damage. If that happens, you may find there is no recourse because the weapons are ‘safe’. Same applies to teargas.
On whether you found yourself arrested for being near a demonstration and then find that a number of policemen swear blind that they saw you throwing Molotov cocktails with your right arm. And then find that, even though your right arm is in a cast, the judge does not dismiss the testimony. Check out Sunday’s Eleftherotypia for a detailed breakdown of just how often this sort of thing happens.

Of course there are quotas. The police need to make arrests, show activity.
But when the only proof of guilt is the policemen’s own testimony, then all our rights depend on their moods. And I’m not all that comfortable with this idea.

So the police arrest those they can get to rather than those they need to get to.
D. Sarafianos, a representative of the Constitutional Rights committee of the Athens Bar Association, put it rather bluntly: ‘anyone is in danger of finding themselves accused of something they have no connection to’. We get it.

So a policeman’s word is enough to get me into prison?
Looks like it.
So just being at or near a demonstration can land me in prison. Being or being near an ‘undesirable’ singles me out for victimisation.
Of course, the courts don’t uphold all those arrests. Of course the system is not completely defunct. Yet. But it sure looks like it’s heading that way.

Police depositions are, according to reporters and journalists, formulaic, designed to send people to prison. Identifications of suspects are so detailed that, mr Sarafianos notes, they can only mean one thing: identifying traits were singled out after people were arrested. What are the chances of identifying the logo on a shirt pocket or the colour of a collar in the midst of a violent demonstration? You tell me. I’d go with slim.
But what do I know?

I know that statistically, the DA tends to accept police depositions.
As do many judges, claiming that if all police depositions are the same, any opposite opinion entails an accusation that the police suffered mass hallucinations or colluded to lie against the public.
Yes. Well. Now you mention that.

To be fair, because someone has to and I wouldn’t leave that to the state right now, so far, statistics suggest that most of these cases collapse in court.
Which is reassuring, but not enough. As it is not reversing the trend.

So let’s recap.
Rights. Depend. On your lifestyle and personal morality, on your skin colour and political affiliation, on wardrobe and geography, on bad luck, sheer luck and the mood the police, public prosecutor and district judge may be in that day.
An awful lot of variables.

That’s all I have to say today. No analysis. No clever repartee.
Nothing but anger, despair and fear over what comes next. Because if one of us is hit we are all hurt. One of these days, we’ll realise that. I just hope it’s not too late by then.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Not ‘same old’ Northern Ireland: nothing will change until we do

Many thought this story was over and the book back on the shelf.
Some didn’t think as much as hope that this would be the case.
But with one police constable and two soldiers dead to dissident republican fire over the last few weeks, the illusion is well and truly shattered.

Of course there are the cynics who claim that there will never be a perfect peace in Northern Ireland. A bit like the Guardian’s Henry McDonald who claims that Ireland will forever have ‘occasional terrorist outages’ – in one sentence dismissing a decade’s worth of peace efforts, the dissidents’ desperate passion and the heart-wrenching misery each death brings.
Not cool, mr McDonald.

Sapper Mark Quinsey was buried last week. He was 23. Sapper Patrick Azminkar, also killed at Massereene army barracks in Antrim, was 21. Speaking of terrorist outages is disrespectful to say the least. It is also misleading, treating the violence like something incidental yet entrenched, marginal yet inevitable.

And yesterday a 17-year old was charged with the murder of police constable Stephen Carroll. The teenager, suspected of membership of the Continuity IRA, is too young to be named but not too young to possess an AKM assault rifle and shoot a man in the back of the head.
To speak of terrorist outages is to trivialise the deaths and to underestimate what it is that makes a 17-year-old take up arms.

11 years after the Good Friday accord, three years into power-sharing and people still join the militants, despite the IRA ceasefire.
Yet the voices urging us all not to allow the violence to derail the peace process are loud. The voices suggesting this is how things are in Northern Ireland and we shall move on regardless are loud.
But what if they are wrong?

Three people died over the past few weeks.
The IRA fights no more but the Real IRA and Continuity IRA do. We can choose to ignore this or we can choose to acknowledge that not all is well in the State of Denmark.

Martin McGuinness, former IRA bigwig turned peacemaker, denounced those behind the attacks as "traitors" to the people of Ireland. I’m sure they consider him a traitor to their cause too. In every conflict, each side has its own truth. The more sides there are, the more truths there are, the harder the conflict is to resolve.

Mr McGuinness changed his mind regarding his own particular truth. But not everyone in Ireland accepts that unification is no longer on the cards. And the fact that, if put to a referendum, the motion of unification would be defeated in Northern Ireland due to demographic realities on the ground is not enough to change the hearts and turn the heads of those who are prepared to take up arms in the name of a cause – even a lost cause.

I don’t pretend to know what goes on in the heads of people who opt for violence in the defence of an idea. I don’t know how the brain gets to the conclusion that putting oneself in harm’s way and inflicting hurt on others is the way forward on a particular question.
But I know that for as long as these thoughts are being thought and for as long as we do not understand them, whatever solution we offer will leave some people dissatisfied. And if those people are the ones who are willing and able to take up arms to protest their dissatisfaction, then we have a problem that cannot be dismissed through sanitised language, describing murder as ‘terrorist outages’, destruction as ‘violent incidents’ and the, small-scale but undeniable, re-militarisation of northern Ireland’s youth as ‘statistically insignificant’.

And comparisons won’t help either.
Comparing Northern Ireland to the Basque country obfuscates the problem. The history and socio-economic background of the conflicts could not be more different. Same goes for their demands: ETA wants the Basque country to break away, most IRA offshoots want Ireland to unite. That’s a pretty big difference if you ask me.
Where the two resemble each other is in that the people living in the areas affected are far from unanimously behind the idea of independence or unity – and even those who share the vision and understand the sentiments are getting increasingly fed up with the violence.

But the thing about violence is that ignoring it never makes it go away.

The peace process should not be derailed by the violence, is the chorus coming out of both Stormont and Westminster.
And that is right.
But the peace process cannot afford to ignore the violence either.

Their goal may be utopian, their ranks may be depleted but the militants who don’t buy into the power-sharing experiment in Northern Ireland are still around and not sitting tight.

McGuinness can accuse them of betraying their people all he likes – chances are that’s exactly what they think of him as well.
And the problem is that they are ‘the people’ as much as McGuinness is. They are ‘the people’ as much as those embracing the peace process are.
And ‘the people’ remain divided. So the peace process remains shaky. And hard work is still needed. And a perfect peace is still a way away. And the ability to take peace for granted further still.

But the greatest enemy of a perfect peace, that can be taken for granted as ‘the way things are’, is not the violence right now. It’s the people who tell us that violence in Northern Ireland is inevitable. It’s the people who think the way things always were is the way things will always be.
It’s the people who cannot believe in a perfect peace even though they are working towards it.