Greek cleaning workers told Amnesty International they were left beaten and bruised by riot police after they tried to protest peacefully against mass redundancies in central Athens yesterday evening.
The protesters included cleaning staff – mostly women aged between 45 and 60 - who lost their jobs at the Ministry of Finance during the last round of austerity measures by the Greek government.
Evangelia Alexaki, a 57-year-old protester who was among the 397 staff laid off, said police hit the women with their shields and kicked them.
“We only had a banner and a loudspeaker; we are now covered in bruises. We could have been their mothers,’’ she told Amnesty International.
Another protester, 52-year-old cleaner Despoina Kostopoulou, was taken to hospital along with two other women and a man. She said the trio had been “severely beaten” by the police.
“We marched and shouted peacefully, around 10 of us behind a banner, then the police attacked us without warning,” Despoina told Amnesty International.
“They hit me with their shield as I was trying to help a colleague and I suffered a panic attack.”
A number of journalists covering the demonstration were also injured as police used excessive force to put an end to the protest, which took place outside the Ministry of Finance building and involved about 30 protesters.
“The violence reportedly used against these women, who were simply exercising their right to peaceful protest, is the latest disturbing example of unnecessary and excessive use of force by Greek police - and its driving cause is police impunity,” said Giorgos Kosmopoulos, Amnesty International’s Greece expert.
“International law and standards are clear that governments must ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force by police is punished as a criminal offence. But the culture of impunity among the ranks of the Greek police is so deeply ingrained that officers believe they can get away with such flagrant human rights violations – and they often do.”
Amnesty International has documented repeated instances of riot police officers targeting members of the press, and journalists were among those injured yesterday.
Tatiana Bolari, a reporter, was hospitalized after she was thrown to the ground and kicked by police, a member of her family told Amnesty International.
Marios Lolos, the president of the photojournalists’ association, told Amnesty International that yesterday he was kicked by riot police who also hit him with their shields.
A police investigation was ordered earlier this week when a video showed a riot police officer punching a woman in the head while she had her back turned. Earlier this month, another cleaning worker who had been taking part in a demonstration reportedly had her leg fractured during a police operation.
“The Greek authorities must launch an impartial and effective investigation into the allegations of unnecessary and excessive use of force by the police. They must also establish an effective independent police complaints mechanism to investigate such allegations in the future,” said Giorgos Kosmopoulos.
“Riot police officers should be individually identifiable by wearing clearly visible unique identification numbers on their helmets or uniforms.”
Yesterday’s demonstrations followed a Greek Supreme Court decision to overturn an earlier ruling ordering the Ministry of Finance to re-hire the cleaning staff.
The Court will hear the case again in September, when a final judgment over the legality of the lay-offs will be delivered.
Witnesses told Amnesty International there was no threat of violence from the protesters against the police and that the Ministry of Finance building was closed, with no danger of the women entering.