GREECE: Unprecedented attacks on academics

After an uneasy lull following the riots at the end of last year, an unprecedented wave of violence has swept the country and has been aimed mainly against universities, academics and teachers but also against mass media, journalists and intellectuals.

Twice within a week, Professor of Criminology at the University of Athens, Giannis Panousis, one of the most highly respected academics and writers in the country, was the victim of attacks by mindless hoodlums. It seems these do not hesitate to take the law into their own hands, or resort to violence and terrorist methods in the name of a spurious defence of their half-baked ideology.

In a number of other incidents, university property was destroyed, lectures were interrupted and staff abused. Several journalists and one major television network were also the subject of terrorist attacks, fortunately without anyone being hurt.

Attacks on universities and university teachers have been on the increase in the last few weeks, ostensibly carried out by the same unidentified people who until recently used the institutions as a sanctuary for protection from the police and security services.

A more cynical view suggests the unidentified groups indulging in acts of violence and destruction are the same people who oppose the status quo and want to see greater restrictions and repression imposed in and outside universities.

The first attack against Panousis took place at the university a week ago. His office was invaded during his absence and almost destroyed. The walls were sprayed with paint, valuable pictures, office furniture and computers broken, irreplaceable files and notes gathered during a whole lifetime of study and research irrevocably destroyed.

The second time, the attack took place in the main auditorium of the Athens Municipality Cultural Centre where Panousis was delivering a lecture on rehabilitation and social care for recently released prisoners during a conference.

A group of 80-100 people stormed into the auditorium and started to heckle and shout slogans. They spread paint on the walls, smashed furniture and abused the audience. Several dragged Panousis from the podium, threw him to the ground and punched and kicked him. They locked the doors on leaving the premises and it took several minutes before the audience was freed.

Panousis was taken to hospital but released with only scratches, a cut above his eye and other minor injuries. Later he issued a statement saying: "I am very proud for the public university in which together with my colleagues we serve science and teach freedom of speech and responsibility for our actions.

"I am proud for the public hospital and the doctors who offered me first aid with special care. I am proud of my family, my friends and my comrades who support and encourage me. I am not proud for those who believe that with thoughtless, irresponsible and blind violence against people - without the most rudimentary knowledge of their life, their fights and their principles - will make the world and themselves better."

Secretary of State for Education Aris Spiliotopoulos condemned the attack which he said was "an insult to our humanity by all those who are unable to harm our democracy".

The academic community condemned the attacks on institutions in general and on Panousis in particular. More than100 academics signed a text in which they point out that throughout his life Panousis had defended a just state, the rights of individuals whether under suspicion, accusation or persecution, a free and democratic university as well as freedom of speech and the dissemination of ideas.

In a statement released to the press, a large number of leading intellectuals condemned the attacks: "Recently authors, academic teachers, journalists and politicians have been the victims of attacks because some people do not seem to like their views, expressed ideas, or speech," the statement said.

"Nobody can remain indifferent against this unprecedented eruption of violence and we are calling on all the people of art and intellect, the academic community, the press and every citizen who respects the freedom of speech and the dissemination of ideas to express their opposition."

These are extremely worrying events, particularly as they come within a turbulent general climate of economic crisis and concern for the future. Greece may still be one of the safest places in the world but if this unprecedented wave of violence continues unchecked the country is likely to lose more than its good name - its tourism-oriented economy will almost certainly suffer damaging repercussions and its institutions: universities, laws, social services, already under a great deal of pressure, are likely to deteriorate further.