Racist attacks on the rise in Greece, rights groups say; police accused in some incidents

The number of racially motivated attacks increased in Greece last year, as did the severity of the violence involved, human rights groups said Wednesday.

The incidents have spiraled as Greece's economy has worsened over the past few years. Relying on international rescue loans to remain solvent, the country has imposed deep spending cuts that have sent unemployment soaring to around 27 percent.

The Racist Violence Recording Network reported 154 cases of racist violence in 2012, including 25 in which the victims said the perpetrators were police. The figures were released a week after more than 30 Bangladeshi workers suffered shotgun wounds on a strawberry farm in southern Greece during a dispute with foremen over back pay.

Kostis Papaioannou, head of the National Commission for Human Rights, said the number of attacks recorded increased 20 percent from the previous year. But, he noted, the true number could be much higher because many victims are afraid to come forward, fearing further mistreatment by authorities or deportation for entering the country illegally.

There have been numerous reports of police, who are at the forefront of a government crackdown on foreigners in the country illegally, mistreating immigrants during routine document checks on the street or during detentions. The police have repeatedly said they investigate all reported cases of mistreatment.

The network, composed of 30 aid and human rights groups, records cases only when it has spoken to the victim themselves.

The 2012 figures "shows some very interesting and very worrying tendencies regarding racist violence in Greece," Papaioannou said. "We have both an increase in the numbers of attacks but also — which is really worrying too — we have an escalation of in the tension of this violence."

The vast majority of attacks occurred in Athens, mainly in inner city neighborhoods. Immigrants are often set upon by groups of men wielding metal bars, chains, brass knuckles, broken bottles, knives and wooden clubs. The victims suffer from broken bones, damage to sight and hearing and extensive bruising, the network said.

One fatality was recorded last year — a 31-year-old Egyptian man who died of head injuries 17 days after falling into a coma following a severe beating, the network said.

Reza Golami, the head of an association of Afghans living in Greece, said many migrants have become too afraid to leave their homes.

"There live with fear inside them, whether it's the fear of the police or the fear of racists," he said. "They don't dare leave their homes to buy a loaf of bread. This is not something that affects men alone, but even women and small children. We have witnessed hundreds of such cases."

Authorities have vowed to crack down on hate crimes in the financially struggling country. Greece is main entry point for migrants entering the European Union illegally, and there has been a surge in popular support for Golden Dawn, an extreme-right xenophobic party, as the financial crisis has deepened.

The government has set up a special unit within the police that deals with racist crimes — a move the rights groups welcomed but said didn't go far enough.

"The main point we would like to emphasize today is the need of the Greek state, of the Greek government, to show more willingness to (prosecute) and punish those responsible for these racist crimes," Papaioannou said.

There are some signs that tolerance for racism is waning.

The strawberry farm shooting caused a national outcry, and authorities moved quickly to arrest and charge the three foremen and the farm owner with attempted murder.

"The inhuman attack of armed men and the injuries of protesting farmers ... are condemned in the most absolute way by the whole of Greek society," government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou said of the attack. "This unprecedented and shameful act is foreign to the ethos of Greeks and its handling by authorities will be swift and exemplary."

Authorities have said any of the wounded workers who are in the country illegally will not be prosecuted and will be treated instead as victims of trafficking.

But rights groups say there is still much to be done. They noted that the conditions in which the Bangladeshi strawberry pickers had been working under — living in disused greenhouses or makeshift shacks and being unpaid for months — was a situation that dates back several years.

Papaioannou said there were reports of racist incidents in schools, and minors have been reported to have participated in some racist attacks outside of schools.

"This is a very worrying side of the racist crime phenomenon in Greece," Papaioannou said. "The fact that it is infiltrating schools, that racist groups recruit children in the schools."