Stillborn Justice: The History of Modern Greek Political Trials

“Papadopoulos, mimicking what Pierre Laval, Marshal Petain, and Vidkun Quisling had said in 1945, yelled ‘I shall answer only to history and the Greek people,’ and in response, the president of the court shot back, ‘Do you think history is absent from this court room?’” - [Kathryn Sikkink, “The Justice Cascade,” p. 177]

I remember a conversation about the Greek government I once had with an elderly Greek man in a taverna on the Greek island of Karpathos in 2012. Between sips of ouzo, he said to me, “We should throw all of these crooks where they belong—prison!” His friends nodded in agreement. It was a sentiment I had heard before, and this wouldn’t be the last time.

The economic crisis that had shaken the foundation of the entire European integration project had been steadily deepening for more than four years, with tragic reverberations into the social, political, and legal domains. Greeks rightfully sensed that the democratic institutions reinstated after the fall of the military dictatorship in 1974 no longer efficiently and fairly represented the citizenry against affronts by their leaders, whose corruption, clientelism, and reliance on political patronage spurred the grand economic crisis, and the subsequent interference by international creditors into Greece’s domestic affairs. At first, I thought the sentiment articulated by this partially intoxicated taverna-dweller was a simple knee-jerk reaction to political incompetence akin to the American “throw the bums out” mentality that costs many incumbents their seats in difficult economic conditions.

Historians, political scientists, and non-governmental organizations focusing on Greek legal institutions, however, point to the complex historical and psychological relationship Greeks have with political trials, which throughout Greece’s history since independence in the 1820s have served a variety purposes, from the noble, to the cathartic, to the sinister. Some, including members of Amnesty International (1986), Katsoudas (1987), and Sikkink (2011) feel that the success of the so-called “Trial of the Junta” and the “Trial of the Torturers” held in 1975 represented an unprecedented success in bolstering “the legitimacy of the norm of individual criminal accountability for human rights violations” and encouraging “an increase in criminal prosecutions on behalf of that norm” (Sikkink, p. 5).

Other members of Amnesty International (1977), however, as well as Kassimeris (2001), Vasos (2005), Laughland (2008), Panourgiá (2009), and perhaps even Koliopoulos and Veremis (2010) doubt whether the Trials went far enough in purging Greek society of those who had either perpetrated or enabled the most blatant reign of terror Greece had experienced since the Civil War of 1946-49. Two of modern Greece’s most prominent historians even go so far as to claim that the sterility of Greece’s transition to democracy, because it occurred “without a struggle that would perhaps have cleared the field of the legacy of the past,” perhaps instilled more instability by avoiding confrontation than it would have otherwise (Italics added by author, Koliopoulos, Veremis, p. 152).

Those who portray the Trials of the Junta and the Torturers as unequivocal successes tend to focus on the peaceful, legal nature of the transition, highlighting the contribution of non-governmental organizations and international conventions against torture in fomenting momentum towards prosecution. Those who criticize the Trials, on the other hand, stress Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis’s failure to confront C.I.A. involvement in the establishment of the military dictatorship, as well as his inability or unwillingness to make a critical break from a long history of leniency in dealing with far-right forces that dominated Greece politically and militarily since the Greek Civil War. From this perspective, as Greek governments had often offered clemency to, for example, Nazi collaborators after the Second World War and right-wing extremists, military officials, police officers, and politicians implicated in the murder of left-wing parliamentarian, Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963, so the Trials represented yet another farcical legal mechanism which allowed these insidious forces to subside back into comfort and freedom under the protection of the Hellenic Republic. Excluded from this legal mercy, these theorists stress, were leftists and liberals throughout modern Greek history, who have suffered in a notoriously vindictive legal environment.

As indicated by my elderly acquaintance’s taverna banter, Greeks are no strangers to highly politicized trials. The Greek Civil War was a devastating conflict fought between United States and British-backed royalists and Communist guerrillas, many of whom had been involved in organizing the resistance against the Axis and their Greek collaborators, and took the lives of some 158,000 Greeks, forcing 1,000,000 people to relocate. It devastated the Greek economy after a prior systematic dismantlement by the Nazis, and tore apart Greek society to an unimaginable extent; lineages of political polarization produced during the conflict echo even into today’s economic crisis. When the war ended with the defeat of the guerrillas, whose provisional people’s republic along the Albanian and Yugoslavian borders collapsed in a campaign by Royalist and British troops (equipped with napalm—the first ever use of the chemical weapon in history), “military tribunals started to prosecute not only the captured DSE [Democratic Army of Greece, founded by the Communist Party of Greece in 1946] but also the political branch of the Party and Leftists in general” (Panourgia, p. 122). Neni Panourgia, a leftist scholar, alleges that the use of penal islands (namely Makronissos and Giaros), constructed by the Nazis during the occupation and used to hold detained Communists during the Civil War, did not cease operation with the conflict’s resolution. Rather, “exile was intensified as a measure of both discipline and punishment,” and her book, “Dangerous Citizens: The Greek Left and the Terror of the State,” makes a convincing argument that this tense, repressively polarized climate quietly ensued until the early 1960s (Panourgia, p. 122). Sikkink conveniently neglects this history in her book, citing only superficially the trials of “some Nazi collaborators” (Sikkink, p. 47).

Historian John Laughland also explores this period in his book, “Past in the Present, Vol. I: A History of Political Trials,” stating that as opposed to the massive anti-fascist purges that occurred in countries under the control of the Red Army after World War II, in Greece, “the political imperatives facing the returning government were…civil war against the (indigenous) Communists” (Laughland, p. 159). These insurgents opposed the post-war government led by Prime Minister George Papandreou “as much as they had opposed the Nazis,” who received significant ground support and intelligence from the Greek Security Battalions and collaborationist government (Laughland, p. 159-160). This, of course, put the standing Greek government in an uncomfortable position, as the collaborators they were pressured to try remained on “the same side of the political divide as the existing government,” both being fundamentally anti-Communist (Laughland, p. 160).

The trial of Giorgios Tsolakoglou, Konstantinos Logothetopoulos, and Ioannis Rallis—the three prime ministers who ruled as puppets during the Axis occupation—began on the 21st of February 1945, and resulted in harsh sentences for the defendants, ranging from life imprisonment to death, though the latter sentence was commuted (Laughland, p. 160). The trial, characterized by Laughland as “relatively fair,” in many ways resembled those of Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian Nazi puppet, and Ion Antonescu, the Romanian Nazi puppet, as they both based their defenses on the claim that they had acted to fight Communism through a “de facto alliance with the Nazis” (Laughland, p. 160). Due to the contentious political climate in Greece at the time, this argument carried far more weight for the Greek collaborators than for their Norwegian and Romanian equivalents.

Left-leaning Greeks were horrified when those who had terrorized their country along with the Nazis would be treated less harshly in court than the Communist fighters who had organized and sacrificed for the resistance. Were these not the forces which had assisted the Nazis’ extensive and systematic policy of indiscriminate civilian reprisal massacres in response to resistance, and had they not dismantled the Greek economy by industrial relocation and a massive forced war loan? Some historians disagree with this characterization of the post-occupation era, stating rather, “Those who had been associated in one way or another with the Axis occupying forces and their hirelings were either arrested and imprisoned or showed their faces in public as little as possible in the hope that their activities during the occupation would be forgotten,” a notion that many other historians and later non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International fervently dispute (Koliopoulos, Veremis, p. 76). Amnesty International, in their report on torture in Greece, state: “Shortly after the war, the courts ruled that membership in the Security Battalions, who had collaborated with the Axis, did not constitute a crime because their purpose had been to maintain order (that is, to quell the resistance on behalf of the Axis)” (Amnesty International, p. 25). Not only were these irregulars free from prosecution, they were in fact taken en masse “into the regular Greek army,” an absorption that resulted in the vindictive “attitude that came to prevail toward leftist and other wartime resistance fighters” (Amnesty International, p. 25). Laughland notes that the Greek government destroyed the trial record six months after the trial, “no doubt a reflection of the government’s discomfort at these trials,” adding that “not a single transcript, document, article, or book about the trial of these three prime ministers” exists today (Laughland, p. 161). This sparsely explored trial, and the accompanying impunity enjoyed by other Nazi collaborators, reveals an early tension between the two political extremes in the Hellenic Republic, and its legal resolution, which disproportionately punished the Left while offering relative impunity to the Right, would be reflected in subsequent political trials.

The highly politicized trial of a group of centrist military officers known as ASPIDA (translating literally to “shield,” but also a cumbersome acronym for “Officers Save Fatherland Ideals Democracy Meritocracy”) held in Athens in 1965 contained, perhaps, the clearest premonitions that anti-democratic forces were amassing for confrontation with the Greek left, a drive that would culminate in the military Junta of 1967. The right had reason to be afraid. After years of fracture and repression, the left was poised to win elections scheduled for 1967, as many predicted that the Centre Union Party (EK), lacking the votes to form a government, would be forced to enlist the parliamentary support of the United Democratic Left (EDA), the front organization for the banned Communist Party of Greece (KKE). Clearly, such an arrangement would be unacceptable to Greece’s conservative military and political elites who, through systematic repression throughout the 1950s, had attempted to eradicate these elements from Greek politics and society. Z, the 1969 French-language film depicting the ideological climate in the years leading up to the Junta, features a speech by a conservative military official, who justifies the violent suppression of socialist activities in the following terms: “An ideological illness is like mildew and requires preventive measures. Like mildew, it is due to septic germs and various parasitic agents. So the treatment of men with appropriate solutions is indispensable” (Gavras, 1969).

In order to destabilize the government leading up to national elections, General Georgios Grivas, a former member of the Nazi-aligned Security Battalions (Organization X) and the Cypriot guerrilla group National Organization of Cypriot Fighters (EOKA) who had later been appointed as general of Greek forces in Cyprus, began feeding cryptic information about ASPIDA to both King Constantine and Defense Minister Petros Garouphalias, including excerpts from the group’s secret oath, and, importantly, implications that Andreas Papandreou, son of Prime Minister George Papandreou and head of the Centre Union Party, was one of the secret group’s leaders (Cook, p. 534).

The young officers who composed ASPIDA, though anti-right, were politically moderate, and tasked their unofficial society with countering historically right-wing domination within the Greek military, which, through a secret organization formed during the Civil War called the Sacred Bond of Greek Officers (IDEA), facilitated preferential treatment of officers with right-wing sympathies, passing over more moderate soldiers for promotions and honors, (hence the “Meritocracy” in their organization’s title) (Hatzivassiliou, p. 139). In May of that year, Colonel Giorgios Papadopoulos, who would later become Prime Minister as head of the military Junta, exposed a fictional Communist conspiracy within the Twelfth Infantry Division based in Evros, which was immediately “linked by the rightist press to the earlier revelations about ASPIDA” (Cook, p. 534).

Amidst this conspiratorial backdrop, the trial of the officers involved in ASPIDA commenced. Prime Minister G. Papandreou, under political pressure to act, authorized an investigation into the group, appointing Lieutenant General Ioannis Simas, a royalist opponent of EK, as chief investigator. After a brief investigation, Simas concluded that Grivas had exaggerated claims of high-ranking political support for the group, and established that though ASPIDA did in fact exist, it enjoyed a meager membership of twenty-five officers out of a corps consisted of ten thousand, and was not planning for violent revolutionary struggle (Cook, p. 534). Based on these findings, Simas concluded that only minor disciplinary measures were necessary, but King Constantine, a rabid anti-Communist, pushed for an official inquiry by military tribunal, in the process confronting the Prime Minister and pressuring for his resignation, which G. Papandreou tendered in July of that year.

The ASPIDA report, compiled by the IDEA-affiliated Colonel Laganis, was released in October of 1966, and this time implicated twenty-six officers in the conspiracy along with Colonel Alexandros Papaterpos, appointed by former Prime Minister G. Papandreou as Deputy Director of the National Intelligence Service (KYP, Greece’s equivalent to the C.I.A.) (Cook, p. 534). Laganis, who had worked under Papaterpos, was undoubtedly motivated to condemn his former boss due to Papaterpos’s anti-IDEA sentiments and his role as an investigator into the “Perikles Plan,” the right-wing conspiracy that robbed G. Papandreou and his Centre Union party of a rightful victory over Constantine Karamanlis’s National Radical Union party (EPE) in 1961 national elections (Pelt, p. 259). The implicated officers were summarily arrested on charges of “forming a subversive association” and “treasonably conspiring against the government,” and tried by military tribunal on November 14, 1967 (Cook, p. 534).

The evidence against the young officers was “based almost entirely on hearsay testimony obtained fraudulently from untrustworthy witnesses,” and as the trial wore on, “the flimsiness of the prosecution’s case” became increasingly apparent (Cook, p. 534). Despite these legal shortcomings, Konstantinos Kollias, the chief prosecutor in the case, moved to lift A. Papandreou’s immunity as a parliamentarian in February of 1967, an effort rebuffed by a parliamentary legal commission the next month. Suspiciously, the day after this rejection, fifteen alleged ASPIDA-affiliated officers were sentenced to a range of two to eighteen years in prison, convicted of a range of charges from “treason against the Greek state” to “following a known Communist [A. Papandreou]” (Panourgia, p. 123). The ASPIDA political trial, and its seismic political repercussions, clearly foreshadowed the fabrication of a subversive “Communist threat” as a justification for the April 21st military coup, as well as precipitated the political show-trials that would proliferate as a means of social control upon the establishment of regime of the Colonels, as the Junta is commonly referred.

Only a few months after Greek military tanks rolled through Athens, signaling the beginning of seven and a half years of military dictatorship, thousands of political prisoners had been detained. Non-governmental organizations put the figure at 6,000, mostly those associated with leftist or moderately leftist tendencies, and while many of these poor souls were sent to secret police stations and prisons around the country, others populated the dreaded concentration camps on the islands of Yaros and Leros, which had been used as such since Roman times due to their isolation and encirclement by the most turbulent waters in the Mediterranean (Amnesty International, p. 36, p. 90). Within a half-year the number detained reportedly dropped by approximately half to 2,777 prisoners, most of whom were held without charges or trial (Amnesty International, p. 90). Among the prisoners held on these islands were several “long-term prisoners from the days of the Civil War” who had expected in 1967 to enjoy clemency when long-standing emergency legislation (martial law) was set to expire, an initiative forgotten when the coup toppled the democratic government (Amnesty International, p. 90). Additionally, many of those detained on the islands remained because they refused to sign the infamous “Declaration of Loyalty,” originally written for those detained by the regime of Ioannis Metaxas, the Greek dictator from 1936 until the Axis invasion of Greece in 1941 (Amnesty International, p. 90). The Declaration demanded that the detainee renounce “any connection with the Communist Party of Greece,” considering that the activities of Communist organizations sought “the mutilation and enslavement of the country to the Slavo-Communist camp and the removal from the Greek people Helleno-Christian ideals,” a mystifying document of Cold War terror worded identically to that used against political opponents of Metaxas in the 1930s (Amnesty International, p. 90).

In conjunction with detainment and intimidation, a policy of torturing detainees was standard operating procedure for the Colonels since the earliest days of the Junta. In an infamous Amnesty International report published in 1977 titled “Torture in Greece,” the organization identifies two distinct periods of torture during the dictatorship, defined by the nature of the victims, the tactics employed, the perpetrators, and the wider motivations for such tactics. From the initiation of the dictatorship to 1971, torture was utilized both as a means of coercing information about resistance activities out of leftist detainees as well as to shock the general population away from political mobilization in any form (Amnesty International, p. 90). During this period, torture was the purview of gendarmerie officers, navy officers, civilian security police, and military police, and these operatives were ordered to avoid torture tactics that would leave visible marks (Amnesty International, p. 90). From 1971 until the fall of the dictatorship, torture was used more indiscriminately as a means to intimidate and terrorize the population, but particularly the growing anti-Junta student movement (Amnesty International, p. 90). During this period, torture moved down the chain of command to military police conscripts, often provincial Greeks, who were urged to inflict visible and severe tortures to their detainees, usually citizens randomly arrested and held for indefinite periods of time without trial (Amnesty International, p. 90). In one bizarre act of failed propaganda, the dictatorship’s preferred entertainer, Nikos Mastorakis, appeared on the state broadcasting channel (YENED) from a torture center during the November 17th student uprising that would spell doom for the dictatorship and precipitate the eventual collapse of the junta in 1974. Surrounded by student prisoners showing visible signs of torture, Mastorakis, grinning like a game show host, stated that the Colonels had ensured him that his guests could speak freely. Refusing to betray their comrades on the outside by criticizing the uprising, the camera was turned off, and eyewitness accounts allege that the prisoners were dragged away and beaten into unconsciousness.

In those rare cases where detainees were afforded their day in court, any semblance of fairness and equality was sacrificed for efficiency and political gain on the part of the dictatorship and its henchmen. A description of one such case appears in a 1986 anthology by Amnesty International titled, “Voices for Freedom,” and details the atrocious human rights conditions in the country during that dark year. Amnesty International, who had been tracking the situation in Greece since the early days of the dictatorship, highlights this case as an exemplar of their strategy of “sending observers to political trials to establish first-hand whether internationally recognized standards of a fair trial are being met,” and, unsurprisingly, the situation these brave witnesses found was worse than they “had thought possible” (Amnesty International, p. 37). After witnessing the defendants relatives’ and common Greeks’ fearful aversion to speaking with the observer, a British Labour MP for Kings Lynn, he noted: “In many years of travel to foreign countries, I have never seen a country where such fear of authorities exists, with the possible exception of East Germany and even there, the blatant brutality is not to be compared” (Amnesty International, p. 38).

The case he had been sent to observe surrounded around six defendants accused of printing and distributing opposition leaflets, as well as maintaining contacts with Democratic Defense, a resistance organization coordinated from Athens by the dissolved EK party. The trial was held not in a civilian court but in a military court martial overseen by five officers and a prominent Colonel, with security officers comprising the entirety of the prosecution’s witnesses (Amnesty International, p. 36). On the final day of the trial, the defendants were charged with “setting up a resistance group for treasonable purposes,” “printing and publishing…subversive leaflets,” and “the distribution of newspapers from Democratic Defense in Athens,” and sentenced to a range of six to ten years in prison (Amnesty International, p. 36). Most unsettling to the observers, however, was the clear evidence of physical and mental torture and maltreatment during the defendants’ detainment. The observer noted: “One [detainee] had been hung up by the feet and beaten on the soles [a tactic known in Greek as falanga, and one of the preferred interrogation methods by both the Communists and the Royalists during the Civil War]. One prisoner’s toe had been broken. Another was beaten heavily on the head and chest. Threats of summary execution were made at guns point to one man” (Amnesty International, p. 37). Such trials, relatively common during the dictatorship, were indicative of the appalling deterioration of justice, free speech, and political freedoms under the Junta, as well as the severe Cold War paranoia that motivated this decline.

The dictatorship fell in 1974 after a failed confrontation with Turkey over control of Cyprus, and former Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis returned from self-exile in Paris from Paris to oversee the democratic transition. Though Sikkink portrays the period as celebratory and cathartic, with Greeks chanting “All the guilty to Goudi! [Barracks in Goudi neighborhood historically associated with political executions],” a sense of fear and uncertainty pervaded for months (Sikkink, p. 33). Karamanlis himself “slept in a different place every night, or a yacht in the harbor guarded by the…loyal navy,” fearing that the army would attempt a renewed coup (Sikkink, p. 43). Fear muted real demands for trials, with the exception of a famous demand for justice by Andreas Papandreou in a major Athenian newspaper (Sikkink, p. 43). An ambiguously worded amnesty decree issued by Prime Minister Karamanlis made it so “Leaders of the military regime lived in freedom and walked the streets of Athens” (Sikkink, p. 44).

As the security situation cooled, Alexandros Lykourezos, an individual lawyer recently returned from exile, filed a case against thirty-five individuals associated with the dictatorship based on a clause in the Greek criminal code defining high treason as “attempts by force or by threat of force to change the form of government of the state,” and soon after, a wave of suits began pouring in, Karamanlis was forced to reappraise the situation and push for government action against the leaders (Sikkink, p. 44-45). First, parliament voted to “exclude…top leaders of the military regime from the benefits of the Amnesty Law,” a move so popular that it led to a landslide victory for the New Democracy party (ND) in 1974, thereby further fueling Karamanlis’s motivation to pursue justice (Sikkink, p. 47). The resulting trials, held in July and August of 1975, concluded with death sentences for Georgios Papadopoulos, Stylianos Pattakos, and Dimitrios Ioannidis, the three primary instigators of the dictatorship. Reflecting the outcome of the post-WWII trials of the Nazi collaborators, Karamanlis commuted the death sentences, a decision that predictably provoked the ire of leftist leaders such as Andreas Papandreou, whose new party, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), was mobilizing opposition forces with increasing efficiency, a drive that culminated in their victory in 1981 national elections (Sikkink, p. 48).

Sikkink offers multiple explanations for why Greece tried state officials for past human rights violations, seeking an explanation for why such trials occurred in Greece and Portugal, but not Spain. She accredits the unprecedented legal confrontation with the nature of the transition, a rising consciousness of human rights, recent regional history, the involvement of non-governmental organizations, Karamanlis’s personal and political motivations, and well as Greece’s history of political trials (Sikkink, p. 32, 33, 34, 35, 42, 46, 45). First of all, the fact that the democratic transition was ‘ruptured’ ensured that “the outgoing authoritarian regime could not negotiate the conditions of its exit from power” (Sikkink, p. 33). Secondly, Sikkink places the demands for humanitarian accountability within the ideological space emerging from the ambitious and hyperactive leftist movements that had ignited throughout the world in these years, a wave that culminated in the May, 1968 student riots in Paris, West Germany, Mexico City, and elsewhere (Sikkink, p. 34). Also vital was the European experience of World War II, in which human rights abuses were linked to an absolute meltdown of security and stability (Sikkink, p. 34). As seen in Amnesty International’s observation of the Greek democratic crisis, non-governmental organizations were integral in “promoting European unity focused on [human rights] issues,” pushing for “a European human rights charter and court” as a central factor in the creation of the Council of Europe, formed before the coup took place (Sikkink, p. 35). Adding to these regional and global trends were political conditions within Greece, which, as stated above, were favorable to holding individuals accountable for the suffering of the Greek people during the dictatorship (Sikkink, p. 45).

Finally, Sikkink adds Prime Minister Karamanlis’s personal desire to “break with the past and erase [the Lambrakis murder] from his record” to this long list of factors culminating in the Trials of the Junta and the Torturers (Sikkink, p. 42). Karamanlis’s political career had been truncated by the 1963 murder of Lambrakis, the popular resistance icon and leftist MP, which had occurred under his tenure as Prime Minister and resulted in his resignation and self-exile to Paris, and Sikkink suggests that this perhaps contributed to his support for the trials. Dimitrios Katsoudas, a historian and political scientist who contributed a chapter on Greek conservatism to the book, “Political Change in Greece: Before and After the Colonels,” also notes the “‘tragic’ element in [Karamanlis’s] political life,” despite the fact that his was “the longest and, overall, possibly…the most successful in modern Greek politics” (Katsoudas, p. 93).

In opposition to Sikkink’s citation of the success of NGO activism in spurring the trials, members of Amnesty International, while admitting that certain international legal frameworks, namely the “Nuremberg Principles” drafted and adopted by the International Law Commission for the United Nations General Assembly, had been implemented initially, by 1977, “the situation in Greece with regard to seeking exemplary justice for torturers [had] deteriorated” (Amnesty International, p. 7). Their report, “Torture in Greece: The First Torturers’ Trial 1975,” elucidates this deterioration, noting: “Some torturers, especially the civilian security police, who committed acts just as vicious as those committed by the military police convicted in the first trial, either have not been tried at all or after having been convicted have been set free with a modest fine or a suspended sentence” (Amnesty International, p. 7). Panourgia also highlights the truncation of justice experienced after the first wave of trials, which she argues focused only on the protaitious, or “main culprits,” of the dictatorship, “while allowing the vast majority of those who made the operation of the junta possible to exit the system without ever giving an account of themselves and their actions” (Panourgia, p. 151). She argues that the real goal of the ND and PASOK governments throughout the late 1970s and 1980s was “enforced amnesia,” which explains their incineration of security files kept on citizens by the KYP in 1989 (Panourgia, p. 153).

Another key element missing from the “de-juntafication” process was the question of CIA involvement in the coup. The only time this now confirmed conspiracy arose was during Andreas Papandreou’s court testimony during the Trial of the Junta, in which he stated: “I can assure you that these men worked in direct cooperation and correspondence with the Americans” (Laughland, p. 177). Laughland supports this notion, stating that “the coup was enacted according to plans prepared by NATO’s secret cell in Greece and that [dictator] Papadopoulos was the chief liaison officer between Greek intelligence and the CIA” (Laughland, p. 177). The ND-appointed judges overseeing the Trials suspiciously “forbade all discussion of the question of CIA or American involvement” in the collapse of democracy, leaving the question of whether the dictatorship was in fact a Gladio coup unanswered and those responsible free (Laughland, p. 177). Taken a less antagonistic stand, Amnesty International reported that “the U.S. administration not only failed to exert significant pressure on the Junta to respect basic human rights and to stop the torture; the instead offered tacit, and sometimes explicit, approval of the Junta, its actions, and policies,” a fact that could also perhaps be explained by the fact that global protection of human rights had not yet entered into the political vernacular and machinery of the United States government (Amnesty International, p. 7).

One indication of popular dissatisfaction with Karamanlis’s handling of the process of political catharsis was the rise and temporally unrivaled reign of Greece’s most notorious terrorist group, the Revolutionary Organization November 17th (N17), named for the Athens Polytechnic University uprising that marked the first widespread manifestation of defiance against the failing dictatorship. From their first attacks in 1975 to 2002, no arrests of N17 members were made, nor were there ever any successful infiltrations of the group by state security or media, making the group the longest lasting of Europe’s many fighting Communist organizations (FCOs).

The first wave of N17 operations, occurring from 1975 until 1980, gained credibility and sympathy for the group as a militant force by targeting widely despised societal figures. The strategy was the infliction of violence against members and associates of the military Junta as well as American targets—acts of revenge on perpetrators of oppression against Greeks, especially the Left, throughout the 20th century. The two attacks that exemplify this period are the assassination of CIA Athens station chief, Richard Welch on December 23rd 1975, and the assassination of Evangelos Mallios, police torturer during the military dictatorship on December 14th, 1976, both perpetrated with the group’s signature weapon, a .45-caliber pistol that would prove their involvement in subsequent operations. The motivations behind targeting Welch were articulated in a corresponding communiqué sent to the journal, To Elliniko Andartiko, which stated that this act would be the “first time in Greece that [the US] paid for…decades of innumerable humiliations, calamities, and crimes,” reminding Greeks that the “CIA was responsible for…supporting the military junta” (Kassimeris, p. 110) The assassinations of Welch and Mallios established 17N’s earliest pattern of violence, which exploited local disdain for the United States and the military Junta in order to gain national recognition. 

The vague semblance of radical justice represented by 17N’s first wave of violence, based on reflections of “popular demands for catharsis” [purging Greek society of the legacies of the military Junta], and a desire to “cultivate a Robin Hood image” gave way to the escalating militant intensity that characterized the second phase of 17N violence and set the tone for an increasingly hostile relationship with Greek society (Kassimeris, 119, Smith, 1999). A similar decline from tacit popular sympathy to increasing isolation and increasingly hermetic ideology can also be charted with regards to Italy’s Red Brigades (BR), West Germany’s Red Army Faction (RAF), and Japan’s Japanese Red Army (JRA).

The trials described in this essay—the post-WWII Nazi collaboration trials, ASPIDA trial, subversion trials during the dictatorship, and the Trials of the Junta and the Torturers—track Greece’s uneasy historical relationship with political justice, providing a narrative more complex than Sikkink’s fairly linear approach to Greek history. Two new reports suggest that the far-right sympathies explored in this essay have again permeated many strata of Greek society, from law enforcement all the way to the Judiciary, a branch independent of the executive and the legislative that is the most powerful legal body in Greece, deliberating on major civil and administrative issues. The first, titled “A law unto themselves: A culture of abuse and impunity in the Greek police,” was the culmination of years of research by Amnesty International, and exposed the police’s “long-standing culture of impunity, entrenched racism and endemic violence, including excessive use of force against protestors and ill-treatment of migrants and refugees” (“A Law Unto Themselves: A Culture of Abuse and Impunity in the Greek Police”). The second, titled “Mapping Ultra-Right Extremism, Xenophobia and Racism within the Greek State Apparatus” was released a few weeks ago in Brussels, and concluded, unsurprisingly, that while the extreme right also enjoys strong sympathy within the traditionally conservative military and Orthodox Church, the Judiciary represents “the most problematic” of any arm of the state (“A Law Unto Themselves: A Culture of Abuse and Impunity in the Greek Police”).

Judges routinely “endorse racist views and pronounce racist judgments,” remaining conspicuously inactive in stemming hate-violence against migrants, members of the LGBTQ community, leftists, and other embattled groups in the past years (Christopoulos, p. 4). The confession of an arsonist working on behalf of a Golden Dawn (XA, the neo-Fascist party that rose to prominence during the economic crisis) “attack battalion” regarding his destruction of a Cameroonian-owned café in May 2013—grounds for labeling the Golden Dawn party a criminal organization under article 187 of the Hellenic Penal Code—was ignored, and the arsonist expediently freed (“Judging the Judiciary on its Stance Towards the Ultra-Right”). In another case, self-proclaimed Nazi and racist, Kostas Plevris, was acquitted from anti-racism charges on grounds that his anti-Semitic book, “Jews: The Whole Truth,” was based off of “historical sources and undeniable specific facts concerning the Jews’ trans-historical pursuit of global dominance” (“Judging the Judiciary on its Stance Towards the Ultra-Right”). These are not the words of a rogue blogger, rather these are the legal justifications emanating from the highest court in the Greek nation.

While the Trials of the Junta and the Torturers may have been a step in the right direction, recent developments in the social and political realm shed light on the renewed deterioration of democratic values within numerous branches of the Greek government, and confirm that Sikkink’s “justice cascade” may not be as rooted in the Greek political and justice system as much as she suggests. Justice may be blind, but it must never devolve into blatant negligence, especially in the face of such glaring affronts to human rights. This incursion of fascism into the Hellenic parliament, Judiciary, and law enforcement has made a mockery of the world’s oldest democracy once again.



"A Law Unto Themselves: A Culture of Abuse and Impunity in the Greek Police." Amnesty International. Amnesty International Publications, n.d. Web. 7 May 2014. <http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/EUR25/005/2014/en/47005cd7-f536-4c21-851f-e595076dcaef/eur250052014en.pdf>.

Christopoulos, Dimitrios. "Mapping Ultra-Right Extremism, Xenophobia and Racism within the Greek State Apparatus." Rosa Luxembourg Stiftung, Brussels Office. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 May 2014.


Cook, Bernard. Europe Since 1945: An Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Garland, 2001. Print.

Couloumbis, Theodore, John Petropulos, and Harry Psomiades. Foreign Interference in Greek Politics. New York, NY: Pella Publishing Company, 1976. Print.

Featherstone, Kevin. Political Change in Greece: Before and After the Colonels. London: Croom Helm, 1987. Print.

Haritos-Fatouros, Mika. The Psychological Origins of Institutionalized Torture. London: Routledge, 2003. Print. 

Hatzivassiliou, Evanthis. Greece and the Cold War Frontline State, 1952-1967. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.

"Judging the judiciary on its stance towards the ultra-right." Enet English. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 May 2014.


 Keeley, Robert. The Colonels' Coup and the American Embassy: a Diplomat's View of the Breakdown of Democracy in Cold War Greece. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010. Print.

Koliopoulos, John, and Thanos Veremis. Modern Greece: A History Since 1821. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print.

Laughland, John. A History of Political Trials from Charles I to Saddam Hussein. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2008. Print.

Panourgiá, Neni. Dangerous Citizens: The Greek Left and the Terror of the State. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2009. Print.

Pelt, Mogens. Tying Greece to the West: US-West German-Greek Relations 1949-1974. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2006. Print.

Sikkink, Kathryn. The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions are Changing World Politics. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011. Print.

Smith, Helena. "Terrorists Hold Greece Hostage." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 26 May 1999. Web. 12 May 2013. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/1999/may/27/helenasmith>.

Torture in Greece: The First Torturers' Trial 1975. New York, NY: Amnesty International Publications, 1977. Print.

Voices for Freedom: An Amnesty International Anthology. London: Amnesty International Publications, 1986. Print.

Z. Dir. Costa Gavras. Cinema 5, 1969. DVD.