Greece has the second-highest number of police per capita in the EU and a historic problem with police violence, human rights violations and a lack of accountability, particularly with regards to treatment of minorities and political opposition. Since the election of the New Democracy government on a law and order platform in 2019, police numbers, responsibilities and budgets have all ballooned in line with levels of violence. Despite numerous high-profile cases of police abuses, no officer has been sentenced to prison since Epaminondas Korkoneas, who killed 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos in 2008, sparking days of rioting across Greece. Three recent deaths - of Nikos Sampanis, killed in 2021; Ebuka Mamashoubek in 2019 and Zak Kostopoulos in 2018 - demonstrate the brutal consequences of police impunity.
A small dirt road leads behind an old industrial estate west of Athens, passing under towering electricity pylons before it reaches the Roma encampment of Aspropyrgos. About 50 Roma families live here in self-built homes, without running water, proper sanitation or access to electricity. A white pickup truck is parked outside one of the houses, where Giannis Sampanis and his wife Maria are waiting by the door, as their kids play in the street.
Inside, Giannis flicks through pictures of his 18-year-old son Nikos, who was shot and killed by police in October 2021. “Last night I saw Nikos in my dream,” Giannis explains. “He didn’t speak to me, he just caressed me and his mother, then went outside to play a game with his kids and my daughter in law.”
The night of his death, Nikos was riding in a car with two friends near Perama, a working class area by the docks. When their white Hyundai failed to pull over for a traffic stop, motorbike police gave chase. The officers radioed Control that they were pursuing “three gypsies.” Racial profiling is illegal – the first of many legal violations that night. Control repeatedly ordered the unit to abort the chase on safety grounds, which the officers ignored. When the car was finally forced to stop in a residential area, the driver escaped and the police fired at least 36 bullets towards the vehicle, killing Nikos and severely injuring the other 16-year-old passenger.
Following the incident, Hellenic Police released a statement claiming that seven police were injured and that officers had killed Nikos in self-defence – all claims disputed by evidence later revealed by Sampanis’s legal team. The car was quickly destroyed before proper investigation could take place. Despite being charged with murder and attempted murder, the police officers were not suspended: in fact, Citizen Protection Minister Takis Theodorikakos visited them in custody, while Development and Investment Minister Adonis Georgiadis congratulated them on Twitter. Shortly after their release, police colleagues greeted them with cheers of “heroes!”
“Victims do not need to be Black or Roma for the police to mete out excessive violence and then lie about it – in this sense they do uphold equality,” explains lawyer Thanasis Kampagiannis, who is working on the Sampanis case and previously represented victims in the trial of neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn. “The Greek Ombudsman can’t intervene in any meaningful way, but their annual reports do help us understand how systemic police violence is – and how no-one is being punished. We can see they don’t want to properly investigate this case – least of all the police lies – because evidence has been destroyed. But for us and for the family, exposing the lies and artificial narrative is more important than convicting the policeman who fired the lethal shot.”
The relationship between police and the Roma community is tense, explains Vasileios Pantzos, president of the Confederation of Greek Roma. “For decades, the EU funds for social integration have never reached the community, so the conditions most Roma grow up in are still very, very difficult,” Vasileios says. “We’re not talking about all police, but many exceed their authority and do not treat Roma people with respect. When police enter Roma camps because there’s electricity theft or a car didn’t stop, let’s say, they swear and break people’s doors down. Small children grow up seeing these raids and, automatically, the image of the police in the child’s mind is negative.”
“Greek anti-racist laws are at a good level but they are just not put into practice.”
“I want the people who did this to be locked up,” Giannis laments, the anger burning in his voice. “Little Nikolaki worked so hard to provide for his kids. He didn’t want them to live like this [he gestures to the camp outside] with no clean water. Nothing will bring our Nikos back but all I want is justice for his kids, for them to survive him with more peaceful lives.”
Nikos leaves behind three young children, including a daughter Nikolitsa, born this year, after his death. Nikos’ case is still in the investigative phase, before charges are determined and it goes to trial. But Nikos still stands accused of attempted murder of police officers and using the vehicle as a weapon.
“Roma people are supposedly protected by anti-racist law,” explains Alexandra Karagiannis, a lawyer from Athens’s Roma community. “But in reality, anti-racist law isn’t actually followed, and criminal code 82A, which indicates crime aggravated by racist characteristics, is never applied. In the Sampanis case, we submitted an application to the magistrate to investigate possible racist motive. But [the magistrate] completely ignored the request. Greek anti-racist laws are at a good level but they are just not put into practice.”
Alexandra was raised in Aghia Varvara, a more integrated Roma community in western Athens. She wanted to be a doctor until age 16, when a family member was embroiled in a miscarriage of justice. From that point on, she was determined to become a lawyer. “I wanted to seek justice for those who cannot have it,” she says. Due to her darker complexion, Alexandra was bullied and stigmatised throughout school but flourished at the prestigious Law School of Athens. After graduating, she went into the EU’s JUSTROM Roma Women’s Access to Justice programme.
Alexandra specialises in cases involving the Roma community and, like most human rights lawyers in Greece today, the majority of her workload involves violations by police. “But the truth is that the bigger problem is with the judges and prosecutors,” Alexandra explains. “The police may beat you but the justice system has a greater impact; whether you go to prison, whether you’ll be deprived of your freedom or not; they determine people’s lives. Judges and prosecutors have no training, information or awareness regarding Roma issues, they just listen to and trust the police uncritically.”
“For me it is a personal matter: I can relate to the victims and I can understand how important this is for them and how unprotected they are. I believe you can achieve justice if you know how to support your case, if you know what you’re doing, who you are and what you want. If you drop a case or give up, nothing will change.”
Alexandra is under no illusions that the odds are stacked against her in convicting police of killing Nikos. But Alexandra’s view of justice extends far beyond the case – and her fight will continue long after the final verdict is delivered. “We have small victories, you know,” Alexandra says, defiantly. “The fact that we managed to reveal the truth and tell people what happened, that’s a victory for us. Justice beyond the outcome of the trial would be a police force that functions better and is more friendly towards the Roma community. Justice would be better public understanding of our problems and bringing society closer to us. Justice would be Nikos’ children growing up to understand what happened to him and why; for them to have a better future and greater opportunities than their father had. That would be justice.”
It’s likely that no one will ever know exactly what happened in the last 50 minutes of Ebuka Mamashoubek’s life. He was arrested at 11:30 on the morning of 8 February 2019. At 12:20 the police certified him dead at the Omonoia Police station in central Athens. Ebuka was probably inside the police station – alive – for less than half an hour.
Ebuka was a 34-year-old Nigerian migrant and father of two living in Greece. For three days, police denied they’d had any contact with him. Ebuka’s wife visited the station and was told they had no record of him. Ebuka’s lawyer called the police and was told the same. Finally, the police declared that he was not arrested but was undergoing a document check when he fell down and lost consciousness. The cause of death was recorded as a heart attack.
When lawyer Ioanna Kourtovik’s organisation was informed about Ebuka’s death, she immediately began gathering as much information on the case as she could – and the limited information we do have from police files and other sources is due in large part to her tenacity alone. Ioanna discovered that, contrary to what police had said, Ebuka was arrested. He was never put in a cell but while having his papers checked on the third floor of the station, he died. No ambulance was called and no doctor saw him before he was transferred to the morgue.
During her decades-long legal career, Ioanna Kourtovik has taken on cases that nobody else would. She has defended migrants, political activists and even Dimitris Koufontinas, who was convicted of terrorism for his activities with the Revolutionary Organisation 17N.
In late February 2019, 1,000 people marched to call for Justice for Ebuka in a protest organised by migrant associations and anti-racist collectives. But the Nigerian community in Athens was fearful of making too much noise and damaging their relations with the police. In Ebuka’s case, Ioanna prepared documents to request a full forensic examination and investigate the numerous procedural violations that were already clear. Ioanna felt the case would have been of great interest to Greek human rights organisations, Amnesty International and perhaps even the European Court of Human Rights. But she was denied the authorisation to move forward. Neither Ebuka’s wife nor his family back in Nigeria wanted to pursue the investigation, in part because Ebuka had previous charges relating to drug trafficking. So, Ioanna’s hands were tied.
"The basic values of the legal system are being violated"
‘Justice for Ebuka’ still appears on walls around Athens and on placards at protests, but there’s no longer much activity around his case. The police’s efforts to prevent any more information coming to light have been successful. “Without public pressure and support from key organisations, it’s impossible to continue the fight,” Ioanna explains. “There’s a limit to what lawyers alone can achieve.”
As we talk for nearly three hours, Ioanna is bursting with information and anecdotes about other horrific stories of police abuses and shocking discoveries she has made – many in the same Omonoia police station. Ebuka’s death was another death at the hands of the Greek police without consequence. There will be more. Some of their names will be heard, others will not.
Like Alexandra, Ioanna is concerned that the judicial system in Greece is becoming increasingly incapable of holding state power to account. “In Greece, it has always been very difficult to successfully convict police officers, the burden of proof required is just too high,” Ioanna explains. “But in the last few years, the situation has become unsupportable: the judicial system is not even investigating cases. The government has placed such heavy influence on the judicial system. For the first time since the dictatorship, I’ve seen the law completely ignored; the basic values of the legal system are being violated.”
At 75, Ioanna is slender, slight and softly spoken. How does she feel after all these decades of fighting for justice within a system that so rarely dispenses it? “All your life you try to fight against this,” Ioanna says, her eyes twinkling. “But still, you see things getting worse. I would say I feel defeated.”
There’s a heavy weight hanging in the air on a warm Monday evening in July. It’s almost four years since 33-year-old Zak Kostopoulos, one of Greece’s most prominent LGBTQI+ activists, was beaten to death in broad daylight on a busy commercial street in central Athens on 21 September 2018.
A large group has assembled outdoors at Fabrica Art Space to listen to the public response to the recently concluded trial into Zak’s killing. Amnesty International, the Justice for Zak/Zackie campaign and Zackie Oh Justice Watch are among the organisers. Despite the fact that four policemen were filmed beating Zak before his death, only the two civilians who initiated the attack – the jewellery shop owner and an estate agent – were convicted of inflicting fatal bodily harm and, as such, handed 10-year custodial terms. The crowd assembled here tonight, and a wide range of human rights organisations, are united in agreement that the verdict is an affront to justice.
As the last glimmers of sunlight disappear, the energy feels like a wake – the open wounds still felt across the queer community and beyond are palpable. There’s a feeling of collective trauma, victimisation and insecurity with several key questions around Zak’s death still left unanswered. Many refer to the verdict as a ‘re-traumatisation’: not only was this brutal murder allowed to happen, the state just pardoned the killers.
The assembled pay tribute to others killed by the police and the far-right. One man asks how many women have been killed by men and how many migrants have been killed on the borders in recent years?
Anny Paparousou is one of the lawyers who represented Zak’s family at the trial. Her desk, in her office in Exarcheia, is covered with copies of the Greek constitution and penal code. Anny has long represented activists and other victims of Greek state violence, such as Vassilis Maggos, a 27-year-old from Volos who died in July 2020, a month after a savage beating from police. Anny speaks in a measured tone, picking her words carefully and delivering every syllable with forensic precision. But beneath the composed air, you can sense her rage and sadness at the events she’s witnessed. “As we expected, the quality of defendants’ arguments was very low,” Anny explains. “This hurt the family because they didn’t handle the case with sensibility. They offended the memory of Zak.”
Zak’s murder exposed the homophobia endemic in Greek society and its institutions: the police, who were caught making homophobic slurs; the media, which initially framed the event as ‘HIV-positive junkie attempts to rob a jewellery store and is killed by its owner in self-defence’; and now the justice system. “There’s no doubt Zak’s identity played a role in this case,” Anny explains. “Otherwise he would not have been beaten-up to begin with. But in trials that have both social and political characteristics, the social and political identity [of both victims and defendants] is ever-present.”
Police successfully argued that Zak posed a threat because he grabbed some broken glass in his hand when – disorientated after the initial beating – he tried to escape; they insisted they had merely followed procedure for arresting a dangerous person. Nevertheless, police continued to beat Zak while he was already in handcuffs. Despite the toxicology report showing that Zak had no drugs in his system, the defendants were able to weaponise the fact that Zak was HIV-positive and claimed the medicine he was taking had weakened his liver – they argued Zak was already dying, Anny says.
While the trial failed to deliver justice, Zak’s killing provoked an unprecedented reaction and transformation of Greek society with tens of thousands marching under the banner ‘Justice for Zackie’ – a reference to Zak’s much-loved drag persona Zackie Oh! The broad-based response to Zak’s death from across civil society and the cultural sphere has also helped give Greece’s LGBTQ+ community newfound visibility, record popular acceptance and has created strong links with other social movements. It has likely been the biggest popular mobilisation for justice since the killing of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas by Golden Dawn in September 2013, which ultimately led to the trial and downfall of the neo-Nazi party. In both cases, commentators have claimed that these posthumous positive outcomes are another form of (social) justice. But did Fyssas and Zak have to die to achieve these ends?
Zak’s identity was weaponised against him in the trial. If Zak’s homosexuality and his public persona as an activist were barriers to him achieving justice, would the outcome have been different if he had been a cis, white, Orthodox family man? Anny explains that, yes, the trial may have played out differently, but regardless of who you are, the Greek judicial system works in such a way that a case like this would have been almost impossible to win – perhaps only a child of the Greek elite would have any hope of justice in a case against the police, she suggests.
Anny argues that the government, judicial system and wider society must look clearly at the actions of police and rethink the licence they give them to commit acts of violence on their behalf. “I know many police officers who should be in jail but they have not even been charged,” Anny explains. “Only when the justice system judges police violence by the same standards that are used for ordinary citizens, and this impunity is ended, will the police change their behaviour towards people.”
The week we thought French police was finally going to change
3 June 2020. Tens of thousands of young men and women from poor areas across the Paris region gather in the nation’s capital to show support for Assa Traoré. Four years earlier, Traoré’s brother Adama died while in police custody. Ever since, the young woman has been tirelessly fighting for justice, denouncing the ever-present racism inside the police, and calling-out repeated occurrences of police violence.
4 June 2020. Online investigative media platform Mediapart and Arte radio reveal evidence demonstrating racism inside a police unit in the city of Rouen. Officers were recorded using words of extreme gravity. A few hours later, StreetPress unveils the existence of a private Facebook group where thousands of police officers exchange racist messages. The scale of the case is stunning.
Thanks to the work of activists and journalists, police violence hits the headlines and TV news. This would have been inconceivable just a few years earlier. The then Minister of the Interior, Christophe Castaner, tries to extinguish the fire by approaching the Judiciary regarding the racist comments exchanged in the Facebook group. But the controversy continues to grow.
8 June. StreetPress reveals the existence of a second Facebook group, also made-up of thousands of civil servants, where racist remarks are exchanged. Christophe Castaner promptly invites correspondants to the Ministry headquarters for a press conference. He also calls-in the directors of the various police services, who are seated at the front of the room. Castaner promises a policy of “zero tolerance” regarding racism in the police. He indicates that the annual report from the French police disciplinary body (IGPN) will be published the following week (his way of ensuring the public are made aware that the “police of the police” does its job). But most importantly, he announces a ban on the use of “chokeholds.” Finally! This is a good (albeit small) victory.
At least, that’s what we believe at first. I haven’t even left the ministry building when a high-ranking official takes me to one side and explains that the annual report from IGPN has actually been ready for some weeks now, but kept hidden by Castaner. The message is clear: he’s playing the role of anti-racist minister. Unsurprisingly, police unions are not happy about the announcements. And they show it. They even threaten to stop working, by calling in sick. So a few weeks later, the minister back-pedals and reverses the chokehold ban, until an alternative is found. It will take one year and a few cases of police violence for that method to be “found.” The chokehold is officially forbidden on 30 July 2021. But Mediapart reveals that the similar technique called “prise arrière” remains permitted. As for the investigation into the Facebook group, this lead to the conviction of just two civil servants (out of thousands). The group has not even been shut down.
I personally still feel bitter about this whole sequence of events. But we will keep fighting through our investigations. The road ahead remains a long one.
StreetPress is a French independent investigative and urban culture media platform.