Human Rights Developments
The continuing failure to recognize national minorities dominated the human rights landscape in Greece in 1999. Persistent discrimination against religious minorities and Roma undermined the government's previously stated commitments to religious tolerance and the integration of Roma into Greek society. Migrants remained targets of xenophobic violence and discrimination. The criminalization of libel continued toviolate free expression guarantees, and laws regarding conscientious objection were applied in a punitive fashion against those who choose alternative civilian service.
On July 23, 1999, a public appeal to the speaker of the Greek parliament and all political parties precipitated a national debate on the status of national minorities. The appeal, signed by Turkish and Macedonian minority deputies, and minority and human rights organizations, called on the government to recognize the existence of Turkish and Macedonian minorities, to ratify the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities without reservations, and to implement the convention and regional agreements to ensure full human rights protection for minorities. On the heels of the appeal, public comments by Foreign Minister George Papandreou fueled the debate when Papandreou stated that Greece had nothing to fear from national minorities and that international treaties to which Greece is a party permit self-identification of minority citizens. These events elicited near unanimously hostile reactions from politicians and the media. There were calls for the expulsions from the parliament of the minority deputies who signed the appeal. Politicians urged Papandreou to resign or pressed Prime Minister Costas Simitis to remove Papandreou. The speaker of the Greek parliament summarily rejected the appeal.
The Roma minority continued to face serious harassment in 1999. A number of Greek municipalities threatened and some carried out evictions of nomadic Roma communities. On February 16, 1999, municipal employees demolished and burned eight buildings that were home to several Roma families in a camp at Nea Zoi, Aspropygros. Local police and the deputy mayor reportedly encouraged the raid. In August 1999, the police evicted thirty-five Roma families from a private lot in Ioanina despite the fact that they were paying rent. Local authorities, who promised that no action would be taken until the Roma could be relocated, proceeded with the eviction without offering a relocation option. The Roma were never presented with legal notification of the eviction. A bulldozer demolished the settlement.
Discrimination against religious minorities persisted throughout 1999 as the Eastern Orthodox Church retained its privileged status as the only official religion in Greece. On July 11, 1999, the mayor of Kassandreia incited residents to obstruct the construction of a church for Jehovah's Witnesses who had secured the required building permits over the objections of the municipality. Residents dug a trench using the municipality's bulldozer and impeded access to the site. The municipal zoning office temporarily revoked the permits, and construction has been temporarily halted.
The treatment of migrants in Greece deteriorated significantly with the 1999 economic crisis in the southern Balkans and the rise in unemployment. In July 1999, a government spokesman claimed that "immigrants have been linked with rising criminality in recent years" ( Avghi , July 7, 1999) in an attempt to confer legitimacy on the government's program of responding to crime by targeting migrants. Beginning on July 3, 1999, Greek law enforcement authorities commenced "Operation Broom" by rounding up foreigners in the streets-including those with legal residency documents-and detaining them in police stations or sports stadiums. Detainees were fingerprinted for possible matches in pending criminal cases, and undocumented migrants were summarily expelled from Greece. Television crews were invited to film the arbitrary mass detentions in order to "prove" to the public that the Greek authorities were taking decisive action on crime. The government did not respond to the protests of human rights groups pointing to the numerous rights violations inherent in such an operation. However, when farmers threatened to march on Athens to protest the potential absence of cheap migrant labor to harvest crops, the government relented and the migrants were released.
Journalists continued to receive prison sentences for public criticism of government authorities under Greece's draconian libel laws. On May 19, 1999, Charalambos Triantafyllidis, editor and publisher of the Florina-based Enimerosi , was convicted by a court in Kozani and given a five-month suspended prison sentence and fine of U.S. $1,635 for insulting Florina's then prefect-elect in November 1998. Triantafyllidis' article contained strong criticism of the prefect's "clientelistic and revengeful actions" ( IFEX , May 25, 1999). A court of first instance previously convicted Triantafyllidis to a twelve-month suspended sentence and fine of $32,700 for criticizing the prefect. In a positive development, on January 21, 1999, an appeals court acquitted Yannis Tzoumas, journalist and publisher of Alithia , of defamation for statements regarding a government minister. A court of first instance had previously convicted Tzoumas for defamation for the "harsh style" of the article and sentenced him to four months in prison.
The law granting conscientious objector status to conscripts opposed to the personal use of arms remained discriminatory in its application. Alternative civilian service was punitive in length compared to the required years of military service, wages were often not paid, the right to perform civilian service may be derogated from in time of war or public emergency, and those performing civilian service were subject to excessive working hours-up to sixty-eight hours per week-and were threatened with revocation of conscientious objector status if they refused to comply with such hours.
Defending Human Rights
Human Rights groups in Greece functioned without interference, but some media accused Greek Helsinki Monitor, Minority Rights Group-Greece, and other human rights groups of attempting to foment "a minority problem" because they supported the July 1999 public appeal to the Greek parliament to recognize national minorities.
The Role of the International Community
In January 1999, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) issued concluding observations on Greece's combined second and third reports to CEDAW. Noting persistent discrimination against women "in all spheres of public and private life," the committee expressed concern over the absence of comprehensive legislative measures to combat violence against women, including sexual harassment; the failure to regard rape as a fundamental violation of a woman's security of person; and the marked increase in the trafficking of women and forced prostitution in Greece.
Council of Europe
In November 1998, the Greek government settled with the Jehovah's Witness plaintiff in the case of Tsavachidis v. Greece who accused Greece of placing him under surveillance in March 1993. Greece admitted the surveillance and promised that no member of the Jehovah's Witnesses will again be subject to surveillance.
The United States State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights for 1998 highlighted a number of on-going human rights violations in Greece, including security force abuse of illegal aliens, restrictions on freedom of religion, and discrimination against minority groups. The report overstates governmental efforts to combat discrimination and violence against Roma.
The first U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, issued on September 9, 1999, highlighted continuing discrimination against religious minorities in Greece, including the arbitrary police detention of missionaries, the seemingly punitive length of alternative civilian service-double the length of required military service-for conscientious objectors, and administrative and legal obstacles to religious practice by non-Orthodox communities.