GREECE: Two weeks that shook universities

Greek universities, not for the first time, became the victims of violence and destruction during the two week-long riots last month which devastated Athens as well as other provincial towns and sparked protests and demonstrations.

At least four major universities in Athens and Thessaloniki suffered severe damage, running at conservative estimates to several hundred thousands of euros, while smaller institutions in the provinces also suffered damages to a greater or lesser extent.

The Aristotle University in Thessaloniki appears to have suffered the most extensive damage from the mindless fury and uncontrolled violence of the rioters. Several buildings, including the university's administration, were set on fire and were only saved by the timely intervention of Rector Anastasios Manthos who pleaded with the rioters to stop preventing the fire brigade vehicles entering the campus.

Manthos, showing remarkable composure, told the rioting groups that he personally, and the Senate Committee present at the time in the university, would ensure the academic sanctuary was not violated by the police and asked the rioters to leave so that no further damage was caused to the institution. Surprisingly, they adhered to his request and left peacefully shortly afterwards.

Nevertheless, several offices in the main building and others housed temporarily in containers on the campus were destroyed. Computers and other expensive equipment were broken, valuable books torn or burned, irreplaceable files destroyed, and lifelong research notes lost. Academics desperately tried to save what they could of their work. A member of staff reported that he bribed some rioting youths not to burn the library.

The Technical University and the Economic University of Athens, used as a base by rioting groups to taunt and attack the police after rampaging in the streets of the capital, also suffered severe damage to offices and expensive equipment. Priceless books and in some cases irreplaceable notes and files were lost, burned or destroyed. Academic and administration personnel were unable to estimate the extent of the destruction and the time needed to restore it.

Pandio University, slightly off the centre of the city, was also occupied by sundry self-styled anti-authority and anarchist groups and suffered less but still considerable damage. Rioting groups caused damage to university schools and departments in Patras, Crete, Ioannina, Larissa and many other provincial institutions but were not as severe as in the capital Athens and Thessaloniki.

Although damage to buildings and equipment is extremely expensive to restore and replace, the damage to the autonomy of the Greek university and in particular to the institution of the academic sanctuary came under extreme pressure from politicians and the police alike during this particular period.

The academic sanctuary was established after the fall of the seven year-long military junta (1967-1973) to ensure freedom of speech and the free dissemination of ideas. It was not to provide immunity to those who commit criminal acts within the university and the attendant legislation is clear about that.

There is, however, a deliberate misunderstanding by all who use or abuse the academic sanctuary, convenient to its enemies who would like nothing better than its abolition. From time to time during marches, demonstrations and protests, sundry anti-authority groups, often having the most tenuous link with the academic community, take refuge in the precincts of the universities to taunt and bait the police and avoid arrest.

The police, though entitled by law to enter the precincts "if they have reason to believe that criminal acts are taking place", are reluctant to go in and arrest the culprits even when ordered to do so by the district attorney without the express permission of the rector or the senate committee who in turn are also reluctant to give it for reasons of their own.

Political expediency, public opinion condemnation at the possible use of excessive force, further disproportionate destruction by rioters before police have time to make arrests, 'responsiphobia', comprise an explosive mixture of real fears and many excuses. The end result is the perpetuation of a curious tug-of-war which does not confer kudos on anyone and it certainly is against the institutions themselves.

It is extremely difficult to give even the most shadowy impression of the mindless violence and destruction that dominated Greek public life during 6 and 19 December. More than 700 shops were damaged and their stock destroyed, burned or looted in the centre of Athens alone - the city resembling a war zone - while an unknown number in the suburbs and in provincial cities suffered bigger or smaller damage.

Banks, the perceived villains in the present economic conditions, were targeted and few escaped damage. Many small businesses were unable to operate during the Christmas period and their staff laid off, exacerbating the situation. Many traders lost profits and hundreds of working people their expected wages. Government measures of cash and interest-free loans to damage sufferers did not include universities.

The government appeared unable to control the crisis and the police unable to control the rioters who attacked police stations, broke the windscreens of police vehicles and in many cases set fire to them.

The police used more than 4.5 tonnes of chemicals, many illegal and dangerous to public health, while more were ordered from Israel. Although generally restrained as a body, individual police officers did not hesitate to use their guns to intimidate demonstrators and occasionally bemused peaceful citizens. For just over two weeks the country was in the grip of an almost Dionysiac violent drunkenness.

The heinous crime, the death of the 15 year old-schoolboy that caused the riots, was not the first of its kind and that is one of the reasons why it sparked such immediate and sharp reaction. Several times in the last few years, young people have been killed "from bullets that ricochet and faulty guns that fired of their own accord" by police officers who remained provocatively unpunished.

Public feeling erupted and it set a series of chain reactions, some of them dubious others obviously provocative. Days after the death of the 15 year-old, another schoolboy sitting in a café with his friends was hit in the arm by a stray bullet that no-one knows where it came from. A few days later, persons still unknown fired several shots from the safety of the Technical University's compound at a police vehicle carrying personnel to work. The vehicle was damaged but fortunately no-one was hurt.

More serious still, at the time of writing, a 21 year-old police officer is fighting for his life in hospital with multiple injuries after he and two of his colleagues were attacked by gunmen using heavy semi-automatic weapons who escaped undetected.

It would seem that someone, group or individual, is holding the police responsible for the death of Alexis Grigoropoulos and the events that followed, attempting to take revenge or exact a peculiar form of justice without any consideration for the social consequences.

These events have rekindled the debate about whether terrorism, which was thought to have been extirpated in Greece with the break up of the '17 November' terrorist organisation, is reappearing and-or whether it has been reintroduced from abroad.

One thing is certain, the cycle of blood is expanding and we have not seen the last of it. There are fears the violence may continue when the protests resume after the Christmas lull and once again university students, schoolchildren and even teachers and lecturers will express their own demands.

The debate about the academic sanctuary is scheduled to start in the Greek parliament next week and so will proposals for changes in secondary and higher education announced by Education Secretary Evripidis Stylianidis.

An unofficial debate as to what kind of police the country needs and whether it would have to be under stricter democratic control has already started but is unlikely to lead to any real changes in the immediate future. In the meantime, people are relieved that the only loss of life during the two-weeks of continuous mayhem was that of the unfortunate 15 year-old boy Alexis Grigoropoulos.