They Work Here: The Psychological Violence of Arbitrary Detention

CW: police brutality, abuse, sexual abuse, torture

The failure of authority in Europe extends across nationalism and borders, it is explicit in our internationally shared crimes on the deprivation of human liberty. There appears to be no other group in society, except for foreign nationals, where there is a popular notion to deny the same human rights afforded to other citizens, than with the prison population. Those who are both can be the most vulnerable to this power.

The psychological effects of incarceration is the true intention of prison. It is not punishment so much as institutionalization that is the motive of this misery, in essence, to make the human obey. Examples of this are far too numerous to list, but recently this psychological violence is exposed in the arbitrary detention of children on Europe’s borders.

This investigation focuses on the power of the Greek police in it’s automatic system of arbitrary detention – arrest without reason or evidence – and how this psychologically effects younger prisoners.

They just arrested me, brought me here, that’s it.”

17 year old in Athens

Fortress

It is an autumn day in Athens and I am walking up the heavily graffiti streets of Exarcheia, towards a refugee collective. In the streets around me are anarchist squats and refugee associations, expropriations of property that allow the community to survive in a city of empty buildings and economic despair. I have come here to meet Ismini who is part of a self-run refugee collective, an association that helps people to complete their asylum claims in Greece..

The length of the process of asylum and it’s reliance on technology such as Skype for the completion of a claim, means that the Greek Forum for Refugees uses it’s offices to help those making claims who do not have access to computers. They also assist in information, especially in the language of the refugee, a particular problem in Greece as translation is very rarely provided by the state.

Ismini tells me there is a lack of communication and resources in the refugee camps across Greece, as well as access to both food and clean water. Pregnant woman are particularly vulnerable, with a lack of medical resources dedicated to both refugees and Greek citizens. C-Sections are given to women even in cases where it is not medically necessary and those interviewed by the GFR complain that they were not aware that this procedure would take place, with one woman describing how her uterus was removed without prior consent.

The work of refugee collectives in Athens show how groups of ‘stateless’ people can organise themselves through their own actions, to empower themselves, rather than be seen as hopeless people in desperate need of constant support. This perception that refugees are unable to be part of society comes from the restrictions on movement, employment and identification that are enforced by the states of Europe – masterfully creating their own crisis.

The solutions European nations have offered is the movement of refugees across Europe, through a crude state distribution of people to various EU countries (not including the UK) – an offer that was quickly replaced with its exact opposite – the EU-Turkey deal. Thousands of refugees have been sent to countries where they are not safe in a direct violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Fortress Europe started to build walls and fences inside of it’s own nations and the popular notion that refugees were criminals started to infiltrate all aspects of society until they were finally dehumanised, the premeditation of violence.

The docks of Piraeus seaport, the major point of entry to mainland Greece from the Mediterranean islands on the European border
Police Cell

If you walk past the Polytechnic University in Exarcheia, you will find yourself outside of Omonia Police Station, it’s entrance leading to a basement with a dark history of brutality, torture and abuse. At this police station on an autumn day in Athens, seven Syrians were arrested and split up into two groups. They were separated into groups of adults and children, the younger group taken to a room for what was supposed be a routine identity check.

The children were between the ages of 12 and 16 and as soon as they were separated from the adults, they were physically and psychologically tortured by the Greek police. They were told to undress in front of a police officer who filmed them from his mobile phone. Screamed at and beaten, the object of their torture was sexual abuse and humiliation.

When two of the five children refused to get undressed they were verbally and physically abused, with the police screaming words like malakas (μαλάκας), Greek slang for a person who masturbates. One of the children broke down crying and demanded to see his mother, as another child who refused to take of his underwear is thrown against a wall.

The police who committed this crime had become desensitised in a process typical to the role of the torturer. The agony of the prisoner is made invisible, the moral consequences irrelevant by the urgency and significance of ‘The Question’. Interrogation does not exist outside of physical pain, it is the language of power and the motive for the infliction of pain. In this case, the Syrian refugees were arrested for suspicion of being part of an armed group that could inflict terror on the streets of Athens.

Terrorism became the just motive for torture, all based on the suspicions of the Greek police that children carrying toy guns could present a legitimate threat to human life. The children were on the way to an association where they would be performing a theatre production based on their lives in Syria and the violence they escaped. They were making there way from the Jasmine School, a refugee collective that provides education and support for refugee children.

The urgency surrounding terrorism gave the police power to do whatever was ‘necessary’ to neutralise the threat, they chose sexual abuse. The reason for this is simply the psychological damage that humiliation and shame can have on the psychopathy of an individual. It destroys your sense of community and is known to being a major component in depressive experiences and emotional distress.

Added to a feeling of powerlessness and entrapment, this increases psychotic experiences such as paranoia and other mental health problems, trapping victims in abuse and trauma that can last an entire lifetime. The violence of authority on the individual also leads to much higher levels of distrust and fear and are associated to an overwhelming increase in overall reported poor health.

Caption: Graffiti on the streets of Exarcheia, Athens

Let me be clear, this is not a story about five children. In the Hellenic Republic, arbitrary detention of minors is automatic and has been known to be imposed for up to 18 months, although there is no official maximum limit to how long a child can be held before trial. The prosecution does not even have the burden of proving guilt, in some cases police testimony has been the only evidence required while other evidence from the defence is either ignored or thrown out.

Investigating police brutality can be tough on the nerves, as much as it can be tough to read about it. The abuse of power and tyranny of the prison system is just one side of a never ending battle between the individual and the state. The solidarity of European nations had fallen apart in a historic failure on the rights of the refugee, just seventy odd years after Europeans were refugees in a world war and thirty years after the genocides in the former Yugoslavia.

In the void of responsibility, there has come a different solidarity. The solidarity of European citizens working against the illegitimate mechanisms of the law.

They Work Here

At the end of 2019 there are 257 children held in protective custody, up from  80 just one year ago. The term protective is obviously elastic, as these children are typically held in police cells, sometimes with adults and in conditions that are unsanitary and unsuitable for any human being. In the words of a 15 year old Algerian held in a detention centre in Athens; “I swear to god, I sleep next to rats.”

Those who find themselves at the hands of the Greek police, typically foreign nationals, discover that they have not been arrested for an individual reasons and so are arrested arbitrarily. If they are not lucky enough to understand the Greek language they will know nothing of the reason for their arrest, how long they are to be held, their rights concerning legal aid and their right to legal council. All of this is in violation of Greek and International law.

There are some, however, who enforce justice on this criminal state of law. Who defy intimidation and the fear of incarceration. The Syrian 7 were represented by lawyer and human rights activist Electra Koutra, who is no stranger to police abuse and intimidation. In 2013, after the widespread daily round up and arrest of Transgender activists before the Thessaloniki Pride festival, Electra was called to a police station to meet with her client, to make a complaint against the police.

First, she was not let in to the police station. Then she was arrested. For 20 minutes she was held in a cell at Democratias Square in Thessaloniki and then released. She had to go to another police station to file a complaint for torture, abuse of authority, unlawful detention, use of violence, abduction, threats and unprovoked insult with actions. The public prosecutor was immediately informed but claimed he could not arrest the police officers because they were acting in the line of duty of a police officer.

Two years later, the charges were dismissed as groundless, despite accusations of witness intimidation towards an incriminating witness from the Greek police. A year after that, the police officer who arrested Electra filed for a counter complaint of ‘insult to personality’ for 80,000 Euros.In that same year, Electra was told of the abduction of Syrian children and arrest at Omonia police station.

After the five children and two adults were released without charge, Electra again tried to file a complaint. She was denied and so made her way to another police station. It was here the children were taken again by the police without legal council or guardian and interrogated on their treatment by the last group of police officers. Their lawyer had to wait outside, again, in violation of Greek and International Law.

A child walks alone on the edge of Piraeus seaport in Athens

Electra has since faced intimidation from the police including an instance where undercover police officers broke into her personal residence without identifying themselves. It is this assault on the legal system that betrays the illegitimacy of power the police hold. She was then named as a suspect in the police brutality case and later as a witness, an attempt to stop her from representing the children in a legal capacity.

As Electra waited for the children to finish their second interrogation by the police, it was already the early hours of the morning. When two officers walked through the front doors of the police station and into the interrogation room, Electra asked who they were. She was given the offhand reply “they work here.” They were the same police officers who had originally tortured the children.

Arbitrary detention is a crime – a violent, psychological torture that seeks to deprive the freedoms of us all through the humiliation of power. “They just arrested me, brought me here, and that’s it,” an incarcerated 17 year old tells Human Rights Watch.

“We were just joking around in the cell. The police pulled me out, put me in a chair and handcuffed my hands behind my back… he has all the power. He could do anything to me.”

“All of us, we’re each alone here, we don’t have anyone.”

Joe Reynolds


Joe is an anarchist investigative photojournalist living in Neukölln, Berlin. Joe focuses primarily on stories examining the housing crisis and the movement of refugees across the European Union. Since the Brexit vote in 2016, he has been based across Europe, investigating struggles in Greece, France, Spain and Germany.

Joe is a journalist without a guild or union. The core of his principles are held in the protection of his sources and a flat refusal to send documents and photographs to local police authorities. He is ‘Free’, independent but bound to the principles of his association with anarchism — the application of the tools of journalism to challenge those in power, not reinforce the lies that keep us all oppressed.

If you wish to challenge the journalist on his investigation, discuss the issues here or contribute/collaborate to a story, please contact;

freeassociation.org.uk


Main Pic: Graffiti on the walls of the Polytechnic University in Exarcheia, Athens