Freedom in the World
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A general strike in March 2006 caused widespread disruption to transportation and other public services. In February, a weeklong strike by seamen, to demand higher pensions and measures to combat unemployment, had led to food shortages and disrupted trade. Separately, the Greek government granted approval for the construction of the first working mosque in the country since Ottoman rule.
The core of modern Greece gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1830. The ensuing century brought additional territorial gains at the Ottomans’ expense, as well as domestic political struggles between royalists and republicans. During World War II, Greece fell to Germany in 1941 after a failed invasion by Italy the previous year. Local Communist and royalist partisans put up a strong resistance against the occupiers, who were driven out with the help of British forces in 1944. National solidarity broke down in the early postwar period, when royalists won national elections and eventually defeated the Communists in a civil war. In 1967, a group of army officers staged a military coup, suspending elections and arresting hundreds of political activists. A referendum in 1974 rejected the restoration of the monarchy, and a new constitution in 1975 declared Greece a parliamentary republic.
During parliamentary elections in March 2004, the New Democracy Party received 45 percent of the vote, winning 165 of the 300 seats in the unicameral Parliament. New Democracy defeated the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), which won 117 seats, and the Communist Party of Greece, which captured 12 seats. A coalition of leftist and environmentalist movements (Synaspismos, or SYN) won six seats. PASOK had governed the country since 1981, except for a brief period from 1990 to 1993, when New Democracy was in power.
A three-year-old nationalist and xenophobic party, the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS), won 4.1 percent of the vote during European Parliament elections in June 2004. LAOS, which had failed to pass a 3 percent threshold to win seats during the March national elections, is led by a populist journalist, Yeoryios Karatzaferis, who has been accused by various human rights groups of holding racist and anti-Semitic views. LAOS’s electoral gains represented the largest increase in support for the far right in the country in 20 years.
The Greek Parliament overwhelmingly approved a proposed constitution for the European Union at a special session in April 2005. The charter was backed by 268 of the 300 lawmakers.
Members of the radical group November 17 who were convicted in 2003 of more than 2,500 crimes began the appeals process in December 2005. The group, which had committed a series of murders, bombings, and robberies since its formation in 1975, had begun to unravel after the arrest of one of its members in June 2002.
A general strike in March 2006 caused widespread disruption to transportation and other public services. The action was part of ongoing opposition to the conservative government’s attempts to reform the economy and comply with EU budget-deficit limits. Also in 2006, the Greek government approved plans to build the first working mosque in the country since Ottoman rule. Athens had been the only EU capital without a functioning mosque built for the purpose of worship.
In December 2006, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church Archbishop Christodoulos met with Pope Benedict at the Vatican in an effort to end the schism between Eastern and Western Christianity that began in 1054.
A strike by teachers disrupted the start of school in the fall.
Greece is an electoral democracy. All 300 members of the unicameral Parliament are elected according to a system of proportional representation. The president is elected by Parliament to a five-year term. The Parliament elected a new president, Karolos Papoulias of PASOK, in March 2005; he was the sole candidate. The president must be elected by a two-thirds majority or, on the third ballot, by a three-fifths majority. The Greek president has no legislative power but can declare war and grant pardons. The prime minister, the most powerful person in Greek politics, is chosen by the president and is usually the leader of the party with a majority in Parliament; the current prime minister is Konstandinos Karamanlis of the New Democracy Party.
There are currently five political parties represented in Parliament: the conservative governing party, New Democracy; the main opposition, PASOK; the Communist Party of Greece (KKE); the Coalition of the Left and Progress (Synaspismos); and the Democratic Socialist Movement (Dikki).
The country has generally fair electoral laws, equal campaigning opportunities, and a system of compulsory voting that is weakly enforced. Some representatives of the Roma (Gypsy) community complain that certain municipalities have failed to register Roma who did not fulfill basic residency requirements.
Corruption continues to be a problem, although the government has made an effort to rectify the situation. Greece was ranked 54 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index. According to the 2005 U.S. State Department report on human rights, efforts by the police anticorruption unit remain weak.
The constitution includes provisions for freedom of speech and the press. There are, however, some limits on speech that incites fear, violence, and disharmony among the population, as well as publications that offend religious beliefs, that are obscene, or that advocate the violent overthrow of the political system. Under a new media law in the country, media companies—including television stations, radio stations, newspapers, and magazines—are required to have registered shares held by individuals. The law, which also limits foreign ownership of Greek media, has been cited by the EU for possible incompatibility with the provisions of the European Community Treaty dealing with the free movement of capital and freedom of establishment. Internet access is not restricted. In February 2006, an artist who had created a satirical website about corruption in civil service hiring was arrested for internet fraud.
While the constitution guarantees the right of all citizens to practice the religion of their choice, the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ is considered the “prevailing” denomination of the country. Members of some minority religions face social discrimination and legal barriers. For example, some religious groups have encountered legal restrictions on inheriting property as a religious entity. Although all religious organizations have to pay taxes, the government subsidizes the Orthodox Church. In addition, “known” religious groups are required to obtain permits from the Ministry of Education and Religion in order to open houses of worship. Proselytizing is prohibited, and consequently, Mormons and members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses are routinely arrested and have reported abuse by police officers for their religious beliefs. Anti-Semitism remains a problem in the country. Until the government approved the construction of a mosque in 2006, Muslims in Athens had to meet and pray in dozens of unofficial prayer rooms, some in garages and private homes.
Academic freedom is not restricted in Greece. The constitution allows for freedom of association, but there are limits on the freedom of groups representing ethnic minorities. International and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) generally operate in the country without interference from authorities. In some cases, domestic human rights groups receive government funding and assistance. The right to freedom of assembly is guaranteed by the constitution and generally protected by the government.
The constitution and laws provide workers with the right to join and form unions. Twenty-six percent of all nonagricultural salaried workers are union members. Strikes in February and March 2006 crippled the country. The general strike in March was called to protest the conservative government’s economic reforms, which have been instituted to meet EU budget requirements.
The judiciary is independent, and the constitution provides for public trials. However, a number of NGOs have raised concerns about the ill-treatment of detainees, especially immigrants and members of religious minorities, by law enforcement officials. In a March 2006 follow-up report, the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner indicated that prison overcrowding in Greece had increased since an initial study in 2002.
Although military service is compulsory, conscientious objectors citing religious and ideological reasons can participate in an alternative national service program, working in state hospitals or municipal agencies to fulfill their obligations. However, human rights organizations like Amnesty International and the UN Human Rights Committee have criticized the program as punitive in nature, in part because the alternative service period is nearly double the 12 months required for military service.
Despite government efforts, racial intolerance is still pervasive in society and is often expressed by figures in the media, in politics, and in the Orthodox Church. Ethnic and religious minority groups face a number of barriers. The government does not officially recognize the existence of any non-Muslim minority groups, particularly Slavophones. The government does not recognize Macedonian as a language, as officials fear secessionist aspirations among its speakers. Using the term Turkos or Tourkikos (“Turk” and “Turkish,” respectively) in the title of an association is illegal and may lead to persecution. Police officers have recently been provided with training on human rights and the prohibition of racial discrimination.
Immigrants are disproportionately affected by institutional problems in the judicial system. Bureaucratic delays in the legalization process for immigrants force many into a semilegal status when they are not able to effectively renew their immigration papers, putting them in jeopardy of deportation. In addition, because the translation service in the Greek court system is underfinanced, many defendants who do not speak Greek are not properly advised of their rights. Greece has been criticized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and human rights organizations for its treatment of thousands of asylum seekers, many of whom cross into the country from Turkey. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has reported that many migrants who manage to enter illegally are locked up in unhygienic, overcrowded detention centers, without any prior screening to determine whether their asylum claims are legitimate.
The Roma community continues to face considerable discrimination, particularly in housing cases as they are often targeted for eviction. The Center on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) reports that, in 2006, 68 homes were demolished in Patras leaving around 340 Roma homeless. Rulings by the European Committee for Social Rights in 2005 and 2006 have found that Greek policies related to the housing and accommodation of Roma violate Article 16 of the European Social Charter, which provides for the right of the family to social, legal, and economic protection. In preparation for the 2004 Olympic Games, more than a hundred Roma were evicted in 2002 from a construction site in Athens near the Olympic stadium. More than 200 Roma households currently risk eviction to make way for the construction of a football stadium in the Votanikos district of Athens.
Women lack specific legislation to deal with domestic violence and, in addition, face gender-based discrimination in the workplace. However, women have made progress in politics. In the 2004 elections, women took 14 percent of the seats in Parliament, almost double the 8.7 percent they had held after the previous elections.
Trafficking in women and children for prostitution remains a problem, but the government has made efforts over the past few years to address the issue. The U.S. State Department ranked Greece as a Tier 2 country in its 2006 Trafficking in Persons Report, removing it from the Tier 2 Watch List. In 2005, the country had increased its capacity to protect and assist victims, enacting a new law that provides a one-month “reflection period” for suspected victims. In 2006, Greece established additional anti-trafficking task forces, concluded a long-awaited protocol with Albania to repatriate trafficked children, and implemented a national awareness campaign.