Monday

21st Aug 2017

As police crush protests, EU narrowly wins Greek vote

As the Greek parliament managed to narrowly pass a package of sweeping privatisation and draconian cuts to public services at the insistence of the EU and IMF, police deployed an unprecedented level of violence to suppress mass protests and prevent demonstrators from blocking the parliament.

With a slim 155 in favour and 138 against, the centre-left government of Prime Minister George Papandreou managed to pressure all rebel MPs to back the package, shocking his deputies with visions of tanks on the streets of the capital if the bill did not pass.

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  • A wounded man is rushed into a medic centre in Syntagma metro station (Photo: Pinch TV)

Only one Pasok MP voted against, while one opposition conservative MP voted with the government to deliver a victory to the mid-term package of €28 billion in public sector cuts and €50 billion in sell-off of state assets required by international lenders before the latest, €12 billion tranche of bail-out cash is delivered to the country. Both MPs have been expelled from their parties.

Ahead of the vote, the deputy prime minister Theodoroas Pangalos, declared: "A return to the drachma would mean that on the following day banks would be surrounded by terrified people trying to withdraw their money, the army would have to protect them with tanks because there would not be enough police."

"There would be riots everywhere, shops would be empty, some people would throw themselves out the window."

Meanwhile, outside the chamber, some 5000 riot police firing volley after volley of tear gas and stun grenades at a largely peaceful crowd, including into a makeshift hospital in central Syntagma Square, those present described the scene as less the quashing of a riot than the suppression of a popular uprising.

A local television channel, Skai TV, has reported hundreds of injuries, the majority arising from breathing difficulties arising from the gas.

Protesters insisted that the majority of people in the square facing down what they described as "chemical warfare" had gathered peacefully, with only small numbers of "provocateurs" challenging the police.

The head of the country's pharmacists' association has accused the police of criminal actions and pleaded for the gassing to end.

The upping of the repression on Wednesday follows on from attempts by authorities to clear the square using gas during a free protest concert on Tuesday night featuring famous Greek celebrities including Vasilis Papaconstantinou, the namesake of the former finance minister.

As thousands sat on the ground, police encircled the concert and sprayed into the crowd for more than an hour, according to eyewitnesses. People held out despite the heavy gassing but eventually were forced to give up.

Unconfirmed Twitter reports from on the ground suggest that plastic bullets have also been fired on demonstrators.

"Normally there are provocations on the sides, but the police are attacking normal demonstrators," Maniou Panayota, an assistant to Greek left-wing MEP Nikolaos Chountis told EUobserver from Athens.

"These are university professors, locally elected politicians. The police violence is incredible. They are attacking with no mercy."

She confirmed reports that police had fired gas into the metro stop underneath the square where a makeshift medic unit had been established.

Takis Frantzis, a community activist, told this website: "Several times, the police have tried to occupy the streets using unprecedented levels of tear gas," he added. Demonstrators describe an orange-green gas being used that they have not seen before.

According to a Red Cross tent, some 500 people have been treated for respiratory troubles, with 20 taken to hospital for burns and bruises. "Teams of doctors are trying to heal the wounded," Frantzis added.

Some 29 have been arrested, according to police. Of their number, 19 have been injured.

Frantzis reports that the main rallying call people have been chanting is an old slogan from the days of the military junta: ‘Bread, education, freedom!'

"But now added is the phrase: ‘The junta didn't stop in '74'," he continued. "We don't have democracy at the moment."

"We will stay. They must go. We stand here for democracy."

By the early evening, protesters angry at the vote had set the Finance Ministry on fire. Separately, hackers had shut down the Greek government website.

'A vote of national responsibility'

In a joint statement, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU Council President Herman van Rompuy saluted the result: "This was a vote of national responsibility."

The pair looked forward to a similar result on Thursday when the parliament votes on a second bill outlining how the measures will be implemented.

"Tomorrow, the eyes of Europe will again be turned towards Athens as parliamentarians are called upon to approve the implementing measures for the programme," they said in a prepared statement. "A second positive vote would pave the way for the disbursement of the next tranche of financial assistance."

"It would also allow for work to proceed rapidly on a second package of financial assistance, enabling the country to move forward and restoring hope to the Greek people."

EU economy spokesman Amadeu Altafaj-Tardio said he was worried about the disorder on both sides.

"It is very sad, and we are very concerned by the level of violence. Until now, the protests have generally been pacific. There have been incidents of course, but the people and the security forces until recently have shown amazing restraint," he told this website.

"These austerity measures are very demanding for regular Greek citizens. We understand the concerns of citizens, but this does not justify violence in a democratic society. There are other ways to express disagreement," he said.

"Most people I am convinced are peaceful in expressing their anger and they have a right to do so."

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