Saturday, February 02, 2013
As supreme cultural artefact, the great god Zeus was the embodiment of Greek religious beliefs and the archetypal Greek deity. Aside from local epithets that simply designated Zeus to doing something random at some particular place, the many epithets or titles applied to him (as many as those applied to the Panagia in later times) emphasized different aspects of his wide-ranging authority. Of particular interest was his title of Xenios Zeus, Philoxenos, or Hospites, whereupon Zeus was considered to be the patron of hospitality and guests, ready to avenge any wrong done to a stranger.
Say what you will about the police force of the Hellenic Republic, it cannot be doubted that they are possessed of an abundance of irony. How else could one rationalise the decision to name the august Grecian law enforcers and heirs of the goddess of justice, Themis, anti-immigration operation Xenios Zeus?
Operation Xenios Zeus is Olympian in its sophistication and Diogeneian in its simplicity. In its basic form, it comprises of the Greek police, avenging wrongs done to strangers by checking the papers of people who look foreign and may be illegal immigrants. Tourists have also been picked up in the sweeps, two have been badly beaten and many subjected to racist taunts.
Seasoned Korean backpacker, Hyun Young Jung, the latest recipient of Greek police philoxenia was minding his own business in central Athens when he was approached by a man in uniform who asked for his documents. Being cautious, while he handed over his passport he also asked the man to show him his police identification. Instead, Jung says, he received a punch in the face and almost immediately, the uniformed man and his plainclothes partner - the man who had first approached him – threw him to the ground and were kicking him.
It was only when he was handcuffed and dragged 500m up the road to the nearest police station that he realised he was actually under arrest. Outside the station the uniformed officer, without any kind of warning, turned on him again, hitting him in the face. Inside the police station, Jung says he was attacked a third time in the stairwell where there were no people or cameras. When he was released from police custody without charge just a few hours after being detained, he says one officer shouted after him, "Hey Korean, go home!"
Instead Jung went straight to the Korean Embassy in Athens and returned with the consul to confront the men who he said hit him. Allegedly, it took five further visits to the police station, an official complaint from the embassy to the chief of police and 10 days of waiting before the officers involved in Jung's case were named. The case turned into a full-scale diplomatic incident with the Korean ambassador to Greece requesting a meeting with the minister of Public Order, and the Greek Chief of Police, to insist on a fair investigation and just punishment for the officers involved.
"I travelled through Azerbaijan, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Armenia but I never felt in as much danger as in Athens," Jung stated to the media. "Whenever people ask me if they should visit Greece I tell them to go to Turkey instead."
Not only tourists are targeted by the efficient apparatchiks of Xenios Zeus. In May last year a visiting academic from India, Dr Rai was arrested outside Athens University, where he was working as a visiting lecturer. He was on a lunch break and hadn’t taken his passport with him. When passing students saw their lecturer being held by police and lined up against a wall they were horrified and rushed inside to tell his colleagues. Despite protests from university staff who insisted they could vouch for him, the police handcuffed him and marched him down to the police station. He was eventually released but there was an outcry in the Greek media which asked why an esteemed academic invited to the country to share his knowledge should be humiliated in such a way. Why? Simply because he is the wrong colour.
The brutal police bashing of US national Christian Ukworji, arrested despite showing his US passport, simply on the grounds that he is black, prompted the US State Department to issue a warning to its citizens travelling to the country. Its travel advisory website now warns of "confirmed reports of US African-American citizens detained by police conducting sweeps for illegal immigrants in Athens", as well as a wider problem in Greek cities of "unprovoked harassment and violent attacks against persons who, because of their complexion, are perceived to be foreign migrants".
The Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman Grigoris Delavekouras responded to the State Department warning by issuing a statement that "isolated incidents of racist violence which have occurred are foreign to Greeks, our civilization and the long tradition of Greek hospitality." However, Lieutenant Colonel Christos Manouras of the police raises eyebrows when he comments that the police tactics employed are: “normal and I would expect Greeks to be subjected to the same treatment abroad.”
It is true that owing to the porous nature of the Greek borders, it has proved exceedingly difficult to exercise proper control over who enters the country and it is undisputed that the Greek nation has a sovereign right to determine who enters its borders. However, regardless of the fact that it is estimated that up to 95% of undocumented migrants entering the European Union arrive via Greece, their illegal status does not in any way diminish them as human beings, who are entitled to be treated with dignity, respect and professionalism.
Instead, sections of the Xenios Zeus team seem to abrogate to themselves the right to degrade others and visit acts of violence upon their personages, employing as their sole criteria for discernment, the colour of their victims’ skin or their ethnic origin. In a report for 2012, the Racist Violence Recording Network, a group consisting of 23 NGOs and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, called on the Greek government to "explicitly prevent police officers from racially motivated violent practices" referring to 15 incidents where "illegal acts" had taken place. In another twenty two cases, the victims of racist attacks said that they tried to report the incidents to the police but were faced with unwillingness or deterrence and, in some cases, the actual refusal of the police authorities to respond.
Though these reported incidents are relatively few, they are still unjustifiable. It is deeply disquieting that a hitherto tolerant and welcoming country is at worst, breeding a culture of racism and violence, and at best, displaying a disconcerting lack of professionalism and discretion that is more likely to be found in countries of the third world, rather than members of the European Union. That a small, in the larger context of Greek history financial crisis could expose such an erosion of the stereotypical Greek ‘values,’ that supposedly set our people apart as a nation, including those of hospitality and compassion must provoke a public debate and a good deal of introspection within Greek society as to the manner in which all inhabitants of the country are treated, not simply in order to preserve the tourist dollar, which seems to be the primary concern but most importantly, as the first of many steps required of a sick and disintegrating society, back to cohesion.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 2 February 2013