Head of state: Karolos Papoulias
Head of government: Kostas Karamanlis
Death penalty: abolitionist for all crimes
Population: 11.2 million
Life expectancy: 78.9 years
Under-5 mortality (m/f): 8/8 per 1,000
Adult literacy: 96 per cent

After police shot dead a 15-year-old boy in December, police reportedly used excessive force against demonstrators as protests, including violent riots, spread across the country. Despite new legislation on the asylum process and conditions of reception of migrants, the treatment of irregular migrants and asylum-seekers continued to violate international standards. Thousands of prisoners went on hunger strike to protest against their treatment in prison. A conscientious objector was sentenced to a term in jail.

Alexis Gregoropoulos killing – excessive use of force

On 6 December, 15-year-old Alexis Gregoropoulos was killed by a police officer serving as a "special guard" in central Athens. Accounts of events leading up to the killing varied. According to the police, two police officers in a vehicle were attacked by a group of 20 to 30 youths. In a second encounter, one of the officers threw a flash grenade while the other fired two shots in the air and one towards the ground; one shot ricocheted and fatally wounded Alexis Gregoropoulos. According to bystanders, two police officers in a vehicle approached Alexis Gregoropoulos and his group of friends at around 9pm and verbally abused them. As the officers left, someone in the group threw a bottle towards the police vehicle. The vehicle stopped and the officers returned on foot and verbally abused the youths. During this exchange, an officer fired three shots, one of which killed Alexis Gregoropoulos. Within days, both officers had been suspended. The officer who fired the shot was charged with unlawful use of firearms and manslaughter with intent; the other was charged with complicity.

The shooting sparked widespread anti-government protests throughout the country that were continuing at the end of the year. Police reportedly used excessive force and punitive violence against peaceful demonstrators rather than targeting rioters who were destroying property. Among those beaten by police were two Amnesty International members. The police also carried out many arbitrary arrests.

Refugees and asylum-seekers

Two presidential decrees were announced in July relating to the procedures for determining refugee status and the criteria for refugee qualification. Both failed to address fully the concerns raised by human rights and other organizations. Presidential Decree 90/2008 makes legal aid available only at the appeal stage after the asylum application has been rejected. The review process for rejected applications lacks independence as the Appeals Committee retains the status of an advisory body to the Interior Minister. Lawyers' access to case files and clients in detention is limited. Asylum applications must be filed in person, putting some asylum-seekers at risk of arrest. Applications must be filed immediately on entry into the country, without specific provisions ensuring access to the procedure for people detained on arrival. Detention of asylum applicants is allowed for up to 60 days. Presidential Decree 96/2008 sets out the criteria for qualification for refugee protection and protection on humanitarian grounds. Grounds of exclusion from subsidiary humanitarian protection include misdemeanours punishable by three months' imprisonment.

In April the local office of UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, reported that minors' access to refugee protection was arbitrary and that information provided about the asylum process was inadequate. It also found that age rarely played a role in the prioritization of applications. The UNHCR's report called for an end to the administrative detention of minors.

  • In October, 160 unaccompanied migrant children, some of whom were probably asylum-seekers, were reported to be in Pagani detention centre on Lesvos island, in degrading, inhumane and unsanitary conditions. Detainees slept on floors, which were permanently flooded due to faulty plumbing, and were rarely allowed outside for exercise. The centre, built to hold 300, accommodated 830 detainees, including mothers with babies and at least one pregnant woman. Access to lawyers and NGOs was limited.

Torture and other ill-treatment

Ill-treatment by police of detainees, particularly migrants and members of marginalized groups, was reported throughout the year.

  • Migrants arriving on the island of Samos were reported to have been ill-treated by coastguard officers after their arrest on 7 July. The migrants said they were slapped, punched and kicked on the coastguards' boat. A guard allegedly poured sun-protecting lotion down a man's throat, while another migrant was grabbed by the hair and his head knocked against the side of the boat. A third male migrant was reported to have suffered a ruptured eardrum after being slapped. An investigation into the allegations had not been concluded by the end of the year. An investigation into ill-treatment of migrants on Chios island ordered in October 2007 had also not been concluded.

  • On 26 October police officers outside the Aliens Directorate in Athens attacked a crowd of asylum-seekers waiting to file applications, killing one man and injuring several others, according to the Athens-based Group of Lawyers for the Rights of Migrants and Refugees. The Directorate had reportedly been refusing to accept new applications for the previous two months.

  • A Romani man detained on 19 June said he was beaten at Aharnon police station for several hours after arrest.

  • On 16 October, three police officers were fined and suspended from duty for up to six months by the police Appeals Disciplinary Council for their part in the beating of a Cypriot student, Avgoustinos Demetriou, on 17 November 2006 in Thessaloniki. Avgoustinos Demetriou was seriously injured as a result of the beating. Four police officers present during the incident but who had not taken part in the beating were acquitted.

In February the report was published of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture's (CPT) 2007 visit to the country. The report noted a serious breach of Articles 3 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) relating to the prohibition of torture and respect for privacy. The CPT reported inhuman and degrading conditions in some border guard stations and numerous allegations of ill-treatment. It noted that the rights of detained migrants to have access to a lawyer and to inform their families about their detention were not effective in practice, while access to medical care was limited. The CPT made a second ad hoc visit to Greece from 23 to 29 September.

Trafficking in human beings

On 23 May, the Athens Appeals Court reduced the sentence of a man accused of trafficking from 19 to seven years' imprisonment for people smuggling, after overturning convictions for trafficking and blackmail. This was one of the first cases brought under a new law on trafficking. Trial observers expressed concern about the court's lenience towards racist and demeaning remarks by the defence lawyer as well as the failure of translators to communicate accurately statements by the victims, including testimony about torture by their traffickers.

There was a mounting campaign to protect the rights of victims of trafficking, including lobbying of the government to ratify the Council of Europe Anti-Trafficking Convention and amend legislation to ensure that victims not be criminalized.

Workers' rights

  • On 23 December the Secretary General of the Attica Union of Cleaners and Domestic Workers, Konstantina Kouneva, a Bulgarian national, was attacked in Athens with sulphuric acid by unknown persons. She sustained multiple serious injuries and remained in intensive care in hospital at the end of the year. The police investigation was alleged to have been ineffective, focusing on Konstantina Kouneva's private life and failing to take into account her trade union activities.

Prison conditions

In October and November prisoners around the country held protests against conditions in prison, including overcrowding, inadequate sanitary facilities, ill-treatment, ineffective investigations of deaths in custody, punitive disciplinary measures, and restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and communication. On 3 November prisoners began hunger strikes across the country. A week later the Initiative for Prisoners' Rights reported that 3,311 prisoners were on hunger strike and thousands of others had refused meals. Among the hunger strikers were 17 prisoners held in the town of Trikala who had sewn their lips together as well as children held in juvenile detention centres. The Initiative for Prisoners' Rights reported complaints of intimidation against the hunger strikers by prison guards.

Conscientious objector to military service

  • On 20 May, conscientious objector Lazaros Petromelidis was sentenced in his absence to three years' imprisonment on two charges of insubordination by the Naval Court of Piraeus. This was his 15th trial on the same charges. An arrest warrant was issued, putting him in danger of imprisonment for his beliefs.

Freedom of expression

In March, the European Court of Human Rights found that there had been violations of Article 11 of the ECHR pertaining to freedom of assembly and association in two cases, Emin and Others v Greece and Tourkiki Enosi Xanthis and Others v Greece, involving associations founded by members of a minority community. The Cultural Association of Turkish Women of the Region of Rodopi had been refused registration because its name included the word "Turkish". The Turkish Association of Xanthi had been dissolved in 1986 on the same grounds. In Alexandridis v Greece and I Avgi Publishing and Press Agency S.A. & Karis v Greece, the European Court found in February and June respectively that there had been violations of the rights of freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 9) and freedom of expression (Article 10).

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people

On 3 June, the first same-sex marriages were performed by the Mayor of the island of Tilos. The marriages were declared invalid by the Minister of Justice and the government filed a motion to have the marriages annulled. This sparked protests in September.

Amnesty International reports

  • Greece: Lazaros Petromelidis repeatedly convicted for his beliefs (20 June 2008)
  • Greece: Failing system of police accountability (9 December 2008)
  • Greek police use punitive violence against peaceful demonstrators (11 December 2008)

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