British Defence Attaché gunned down
British Defence Attaché Stephen Saunders, 53, was gunned down in central Athens on Thursday 8 June at 7:40am. Saunders was stuck in traffic on Kifissias Avenue when he was shot through his closed car window by two persons on a motorcycle.
He was taken to the local Red Cross hospital where he died just over three hours later.
The next day, the November 17 terrorist group claimed responsibility for the attack. The group, which is named for the day in 1973 when the Colonels' Junta crushed a student uprising, has killed twenty-one people since its emergence in 1975. None of its members have ever been arrested or prosecuted.
In a 13-page proclamation sent to the Greek daily Eleftherotypia, November 17 said Saunders was assassinated because he "actively participated in coordinating the NATO air raids and bombing of Serbia" in the spring of 1999. The British Embassy in Athens denied that Saunders had "any direct role" in NATO's campaign.
The Greek government and opposition political parties alike denounced the British diplomat's assassination as a barbarous act of terrorism. Prime Minister Costas Simitis said "we will not permit anyone to disturb the calm and progress being achieved, or to blacken the image of a modern, peaceful and democratic Greece." He also promised to spare no effort in bringing the assassins to justice.
The attack, which came four days after the US Congress' Committee on Terrorism recommended sanctions on Greece for its "passive" attitude toward terrorism, raises a number of serious implications for the country, as the government has been trying to safeguard the nation's spotless international image as a safe, civilised European country, particularly on the eve of accession to the European Monetary Union (EMU) and the upcoming Athens Olympic Games of 2004.
The attack also seriously undermines the government's rejection of US claims that Greece has a serious terrorism problem and is not completely cooperative with US efforts to stamp out terrorist activity. The country has been ranked by the US State Department as among the most unsafe in the world, placing it in the same category as Colombia and Pakistan.
Changes to the nation's counter-terrorism laws are now being discussed. While terrorist cases are presently tried by judge and jury, the government is now examining holding terrorist trials by judges only, and is also discussing new measures that could facilitate counter-terrorist operations.
Under the proposed measures, counter-terrorist units would be allowed to search suspects homes without the presence of a public prosecutor, and may also be able to follow suspects using "unorthodox means." The measures could clash with the country's post-dictatorship tradition of democratic freedoms.
In July, the government is likely to sign a bilateral agreement on police cooperation with the United States. The agreement's signing has long been delayed by Greek authorities, while American officials have been equally insistent that the measure be adopted, particularly as five US officials have been killed by November 17 without a single arrest being made.
Coming as it did on the eve of Greece's accession to the EMU, the economy is bound to be substantially affected as profits from the tourism industry -a very important sector of the Greek economy- may fall dramatically if tourists cancel their holiday bookings for fear of violence.
US recommends sanctions over terrorism
A report by the US Congress' Committee on Terrorist made public Monday 5 June proposes that Greece be designated as a country "not fully cooperating" with US counter-terrorist policies.
The report, which also proposed hitting Athens with sanctions preventing the sale of military hardware, has caused discontent among Greek political parties, all of which claim that the report's contents and conclusions are "far from reality." The United States is Greece's most important supplier of advanced military equipment.
US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and American ambassador to Athens Nicolas Burns have both ruled out the imposition of sanctions, although Greece continues to be ranked the second most anti-American country in the world after Colombia. Opposition to the United States mounted in spring 1999 with anti-American demonstrations over NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia, and continued during President Bill Clinton's visit to Athens last November.
The American Embassy in Athens has regularly provided the State Department with what local observers call "exaggerated information" about terrorist activity in Greece, in which the Embassy has ranked extremist anarchist groups as being as dangerous as the urban guerrilla group November 17, which was responsible for the assassination of the British Defence Attaché this week.
US and Israel offer Olympic security aid
The United States and Israel have offered to help with security preparations and police training following International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Juan Antonio Samaranch's criticism of Greece's preparedness to host the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
In remarks widely critical of Athens' preparations, IOC boss Samaranch highlighted the security of athletes, the public and VIPs as a major issue, saying that the Games' high international profile and the presence of international media make the event a perfect terrorist target.
According to the Athens organizing committee, the cost of security measures could reach as high as GRD 150 billion. The committee also noted that the Games will require 50,000 security officers, more than the police and armed forces together can provide.
In the wake of the criticism, and following this week's assassination of British Defence Attaché Stephen Saunders, the US and Israel have offered to train police officers and provide security control systems and technology that could remain in the country after the Games have ended.
Green light for Greek EMU membership
On Monday 5 June, the Committee of Ministers of Economic Affairs and Finance of the Council of Europe (ECOFIN) approved Greece's application for accession to the European Monetary Union. Formal approval will follow at the EU summit in Portugal on 19 June. Meanwhile, the Greek Drachma was pegged at 304.75 per euro.
ECOFIN suggested that the Greek government should take a number of measures to sustain integration in the future and overcome help problems of competitiveness within the EMU. Greece, it said, should speed up the pace of privatisation, reform its national social insurance system and pursue a careful policy on wage increases and interest rate hikes to maintain inflation at its presently low level.
Church calls ID card protests
The rift between the government and the Orthodox Church caused by the former's decision to strike religious affiliation from identification cards carried by all Greek adult citizens deepened this week as a result of a personal confrontation between Prime Minister Costas Simitis and Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Christodoulos.
Early in the week, a conference of the Church's Holy Synod decided to continue the struggle against the new police ID cards by opening negotiations with the government, proposing that Archbishop Christodoulos head a delegation to meet with the Prime Minister.
Nevertheless, Simitis stressed that he is not willing to negotiate on the issue and refused to meet with the delegation. The Church was angered and immediately called two national demonstrations, one in Thessaloniki slated for 14 June and a second in Athens on 21 June.
Simitis believes that the issue is the responsibility of the state alone and says it is now closed.
The rift seems to extend to other issues, as the Prime Minister is unhappy with Christodoulos' public statements on the country's role in the EU and on globalisation. The Orthodox Church, on the other hand, believes that the government is trying to undermine the role of religion and of the Church in Greek social life.
Foreign Minister on quest for lost marbles
A three-member delegation headed by Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou testified before the United Kingdom's House of Commons Cultural Committee for two hours on Monday 5 June. The committee is holding an inquiry into the illicit trade in foreign antiquities.
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Past Greek governments have repeatedly asked that the Parthenon Marbles be returned, and the Greek public has been scandalized by recent rumours that the marbles sustained serious damage due to the British Museum's inadequate cleaning methods. The present campaign to return of the Parthenon Marbles was initiated by the late Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri in August 1982 at a UNESCO conference.
Monday was the first time that Greek demands for the Parthenon Marbles' return have been discussed by the House of Commons, and the Greek government considered the hearing to be a substantial and positive step towards a bilateral solution.
The British Museum has been quite reluctant to return the marbles, arguing it is a good guardian and that great number of people have the opportunity to enjoy the marbles for free. The Greek side, for its part, wants to host the marbles in their natural environment, particularly for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
International politics may hamper the return of the lost marbles, as they are not the only foreign antiquities whose possession by UK museums is disputed. Their return could set a precedent for other nations, including Egypt, to argue over possession of their own missing antiquities.
Maria Vidali, 10 June 2000
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