Students face charges brought by their own lecturers

Twelve university students will sit in the dock of the criminal justice court in Athens on 10 March facing charges laid against them by their own academic teachers for acts committed in 2011, during a period of student protests against legislation they believed would undermine free-state education and privatise state universities.

The charges laid before the criminal courts by the academics of the science department of the University of Crete against members of the university’s student union have caused a great deal of surprise and dismay, with questions raised about their motives.

The students who are being prosecuted took part in large-scale student demonstrations in September 2011 demanding the abolition of the legislation 4009/11, brought in by the then education minister Anna Diamantopoulou.

The majority of the academic community at the time opposed the legislation on the basis that it aimed to change radically the character of the free state universities, making them prey to private interests and forcing them to operate with marketplace criteria including the charging of tuition fees, as a result of which large sections of the population would be excluded from further education.

The academics at the science department of the University of Crete, however, disagreed with their colleagues and went on record with a series of articles to support the legislation, arguing that the universities needed the proposed reforms, and welcomed the involvement of private interests and marketisation.

They subsequently brought charges against the students who occupied the university, of illegal forceful detention, attempted violence and prevention of carrying out their duties during the period of occupation which lasted for just over a week.

During the occupation the university’s normal activities were curtailed and examinations were not carried out. Following a decision by the institution’s senate committee, exams were carried out after the occupation in all departments – except at the science department where the academics refused to comply.

The students' union protested at the next general assembly of the department, but instead of listening to the students’ arguments the academics called the police. The institution's disciplinary board, which was called upon to adjudicate, decided that the students should lose the semester.

In addition, the academics laid charges against the students and the case will be heard in the criminal court on 10 March.

A controversial case

The case is controversial because such action is unprecedented in the academic annals. More than 1,000 signatures have been collected and the students appear to have the support of not only the academic community at large but also public opinion on Crete, with dozens of resolutions from students' unions, marches, demonstrations and concerts in support of the accused students’ case.

When the prosecution of the students was first made known in 2012, dozens of left-wing MPs – among them George Stathakis, professor at the University of Crete, Euclid Tsakalotos, the current finance minister, and Theano Fotiou, alternate minister of social solidarity in the present government – criticised the stance of the science department’s academics, warned of ‘systematic persecution of excellent students who did nothing else but pursue their trade union activity’ and complained of ‘criminalisation of the student trade union movement’.

The present Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, then the leader of the opposition, stated in October 2012 that ‘the prosecution of the 12 students is a political persecution as a result of their trade union activity’.

Now, very little of the original legislation remains in force, but the academics are demanding the students’ exemplary punishment.

There are some signs that the judiciary may not justify the action of the academics. Recently a Greek court refused an application to extradite five Greek students who took part in demonstrations during an international student mobilisation period in Italy in order to face charges in that country.

It is an entirely different case but legal experts claim it is a precedent that may save the accused students from facing a conviction which will not only mar their academic careers but also their entire lives.