Freedom in the World
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Wildfires ravaged Greece’s Peloponnesian peninsula in August 2007, killing over 60 people and destroying nearly 500,000 acres of countryside. The conservative government was accused of a slow response to the disaster. The ruling New Democracy party lost a number of seats in parliamentary elections in September, but it secured enough to remain in power.
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. Communist and royalist partisans mounted a strong resistance to Nazi German occupation during World War II, but 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.
The Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) governed the country from 1981 to 2004, except for a brief period from 1990 to 1993, when the conservative New Democracy party held power. In the March 2004 elections, New Democracy took 165 of the 300 seats in Parliament, unseating PASOK, which captured 117. A nationalist and xenophobic party, the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS), fell short of a 3 percent threshold for entering the national legislature, but it took 4.1 percent of the vote during European Parliament elections in June 2004. LAOS is led by a populist journalist, Yeoryios Karatzaferis, who has been accused by human rights groups of holding racist and anti-Semitic views.
In January 2007, a rocket was fired at the U.S. embassy in Athens, causing minor damage and no injuries. Separately, a riot at a soccer game in March left one fan dead, prompting the government to ban about 300 team supporters’ clubs. Wildfires ravaged the countryside of the Peloponnesian peninsula in August, killing over 60 people and scorching nearly 500,000 acres. The government’s response to the fires was criticized as slow and sparked widespread anger.
The ruling New Democracy party returned to power in September parliamentary elections, but with just 152 seats, 13 fewer than in 2004. PASOK, the main opposition party, also lost support, capturing 102 seats. Among the smaller parties, LAOS won 10 seats, entering Parliament for the first time; the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) took 22 seats, and the Coalition of the Left and Progress (Synaspismos) won 14.
Greece is an electoral democracy. All 300 members of the unicameral Parliament are elected according to a system of proportional representation. The largely ceremonial president is elected by a supermajority of Parliament for a five-year term. The current president, Karolos Papoulias of PASOK, was elected unopposed in March 2005. 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. Five parties won seats in Parliament in 2007: the center-left PASOK, the conservative New Democracy, the leftist KKE and Synaspismos, and the far-right LAOS.
The country has generally fair electoral laws, equal campaigning opportunities, and a system of compulsory voting that is weakly enforced. Some representatives of the Romany (Gypsy) community complain that certain municipalities have failed to register Roma who did not fulfill basic residency requirements.
Corruption continues to be a problem. Greece was ranked 56 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index. According to the 2006 U.S. State Department report on human rights, numerous judges have been dismissed for corruption. In 2006, the police department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs took several disciplinary measures against corrupt officers.
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 on publications that offend religious beliefs, are obscene, or advocate the violent overthrow of the political system. A proposed media law currently being discussed in Parliament states that the main transmission language of radio stations must be Greek. It also requires that radio stations keep a certain amount of money in reserve and hire a certain number of full-time staff, both factors that would disproportionately hurt smaller, minority-owned stations. Internet access is not restricted.
In July 2007, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that a Greek law that holds journalists responsible for the declarations and opinions of people taking part in controversial talk shows was a breach of the freedom of expression. In the original case, a Greek court had ruled that the journalist/coordinator of a radio program was liable for a guest speaker’s on-air criticism of certain public personalities. Separately, the leader of a journalists’ union, Dimitris Trimis, was sent to jail in March for his union activities during a 2004 strike.
While the constitution guarantees the right of all citizens to practice the religion of their choice, the Orthodox Church 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 2006, when approval for construction was granted, Athens had been the only European Union capital without a functioning mosque built for the purpose of worship. 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-seven percent of all nonagricultural salaried workers are union members. A general strike in March 2006, launched to protest the conservative government’s economic reforms, caused widespread disruption to transportation and other public services.
The judiciary is independent, and the constitution provides for public trials. During the year, several judges were under investigation and some dismissed for charges of corruption. 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. Prison overcrowding remains a problem.
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. Macedonian is not recognized as a language, as officials fear secessionist aspirations among its speakers. Using the terms 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. 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. Amnesty International in 2007 documented several incidents of police brutality against immigrants, including one that was videotaped and posted on the internet.
The Romany community continues to face considerable discrimination, particularly in housing cases, as they are often targeted for eviction. More than 200 Romany households are currently at risk of eviction to make way for the construction of a soccer stadium in the Votanikos district of Athens. In January 2007, the prefect of Athens, Yannis Sgouros, became the first high-ranking Greek official to personally visit the Votanikos Romany community to review the situation.
Women lack specific legislation to deal with domestic violence and face gender-based discrimination in the workplace. Following the September 2007 elections, women held roughly one in six seats in Parliament. Trafficking in women and children for prostitution remains a problem, but the government has attempted over the past few years to address the issue. The U.S. State Department ranked Greece as a Tier 2 country in its 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report, noting that officials made efforts to prosecute traffickers in 2006. The country had been on the Tier 2 Watch List in 2005. In July 2007, Amnesty International reported that the state does not sufficiently support victims of sex trafficking, since it forces women to decide within a one-month period whether to “cooperate with authorities” and testify against their traffickers in order to be recognized as a victim.