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Cablegate: University Asylum in Greece: When Democracy Goes Awry

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DE RUEHTH #1725/01 3570854
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
O R 230854Z DEC 09
FM AMEMBASSY ATHENS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 1256
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C O N F I D E N T I A L ATHENS 001725

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 2019/12/23
TAGS: PGOV OEXC SOCI GR
SUBJECT: University Asylum in Greece: When Democracy Goes Awry

CLASSIFIED BY: Daniel V. Speckhard, Ambassador, State, EXEC; REASON:
1.4(B), (D)

1. (C) Summary: A series of violent attacks against Greek
academics in both Athens and Thessaloniki during the past month has
fueled public debate over whether the university asylum law should
be repealed to allow police officers to enter university grounds
absent a formal request from university authorities. Both sides of
the debate are vocal: leftist-leaning politicians and students
oppose any change to the present law, which they claim is a beacon
of free speech. Proponents of abolishing the law argue it is an
outdated holdover from the early post-dictatorship years,
irrelevant to today's Greek reality and nothing more than a legal
cover for hoodlums to wreak destruction with impunity. The
government appears unwilling to touch this political hot potato,
tossing it instead to university rectors who are forced to choose
between their own safety (when calling in authorities to intervene)
and that of their students, faculty and premises (when they refrain
from doing so). As debate continues over what to do with asylum,
the broader cost of maintaining this policy (the only one of its
kind in Europe) in terms of disrupted classes, missed semesters,
delayed graduations, damage to university property, and
psychological impact on administrators, faculty and the
well-meaning student majority, is inestimable. End summary.

An Education in Violence

2. (C) In the year following the death of Alexis Grigoropoulos,
the teen who was accidentally shot by a police officer, leading to
some of the worst rioting that Greece has ever seen, violence on
Greek campuses continues. The respected and influential long-time
rector of the University of Athens and Embassy contact, Christos
Kittas, was recently severely beaten by assailants on university
grounds. He resigned his post after suffering a heart attack
following the assault. In his widely-publicized resignation
letter, Kittas admonished Greece's youth that it is high time for
them to find non-violent means to express themselves. Kittas is
not the only victim of violence on university grounds. Also
recently, a professor at the Athens University of Economics and
Business, Gerasimos Sapountzoglou, was targeted by hoodlums who
beat and choked him when he refused to stop a lecture. Anastassios
Manthos, rector of Thessaloniki's Aristotle University, was knocked
unconscious by students last year. Several other academics have
suffered similar attacks in Athens and Thessaloniki over the past
year, yet most avoided publicly condemning the assaults, fearing
reprisals.

The Asylum Law: How Did We Get Here?

3. (C) The university asylum law was introduced in 1982 to protect
freedom of thought and expression on university campuses, in the
aftermath of the military dictatorship. The law stipulates that
only university rectors and/or leadership have the right to invite
police onto a campus. In reality, university administrators are
extremely reluctant to do so, first and foremost because they fear
for their own safety and second because doing so could instigate
further violence on campus. To our knowledge, there have only been
three instances when permission for the police to enter university
grounds was requested: a) in 1985 at the sit-in at the Chemical
Laboratory in Athens; b) in 1995 during a destructive sit-in at the
Athens Polytechnic School; and c) in 2002 during the informal EU
Defense Ministerial in Crete, when a police helicopter spotted
marijuana plants in a field owned by the University of Crete and
police officers were given permission to uproot 620 six-foot high
marijuana plants.

Sacred Cow or Red Herring?

4. (C) In contrast, during the violent protests of December 2008
in which university grounds were targeted by hoodlums, university
officials did not call in the police for fear that violence would
escalate. Police remained well outside university walls as they
were taunted by Molotov cocktail-throwing vandals from within.
Since then, the topic of university asylum has been the subject of
heated public and political debate. Leftist political parties and
student groups in Greece support the current law, to protect free
speech. Those in favor of repealing the law argue that it was
enacted during a time when universities were the sole venues of
tolerance and freedom. However, in today's stable Greek democracy,
freedom of speech and thought are well protected already. As
practiced today, they say, the law is supporting a system that
encourages violent action without repercussions, allows lawlessness
on campuses, provides a sanctuary for criminals, and threatens the
academic and student communities.

Rectors Unite, Government Punts

5. (C) During an annual Rectors' Assembly in mid-December, the law
was at the top of the agenda. Rectors agreed that the law should
be seen as protecting freedom of speech in the classroom and
research. The rectors stressed that the law has been
misinterpreted to such an extent that it no longer protects these
rights, but has become a faC'ade for committing crimes and a tool
for the violent imposition of opinions by the few. In the days
following the assembly, there was significant public debate on how
universities can protect themselves from acts of violence on
campus. The Athens Law School took a bold step toward restricting
access to its campus, proposing introducing a student ID system
similar to that used by the Sorbonne and posting guards at its
gates - an idea supported in principle by the opposition. Minister
of Education Anna Diamantopoulou responded on behalf of the
government, condemning the attack on Rector Kittas but stating that
the current legislation regarding university asylum is sufficient
as written, since it provides for universities to choose how best
to protect their premises and allows for police involvement on
campus at the invitation of rectors. Diamantopoulou also
recommended the establishment of a duty rector on a daily basis in
order to coordinate better with authorities in case of a sit-in or
violence on campus.

6. (C) Diamantopoulou's claims may be aimed at appeasing leftist
elements within the PASOK party and outside, but are opposed by
others. University of Piraeus professor XXXXXXXXXXXX, educated
in both the U.S. and the Greek systems, told us that university
rectors and professors are cowed by the demonstrators and fear for
their lives when they stand up to them, adding "they (hoodlums)
know where they (administrators) live, and are not afraid to use
this threat ." Panteion University professor XXXXXXXXXXXX agreed that the troublemakers are adept at using
intimidation tactics, including posting the names of targeted
professors on a Greek anarchist website (hosted, incredibly, on the
official Panteion University server) and disrupting classes.
XXXXXXXXXXXX has resorted to hosting visiting lecturers off campus to
avoid yogurt-throwing attacks, or worse, by hooligans and in a
recent international conference he paid 6,000 Euros for an off
campus site rather than risk the disruption or even forced
cancellation of the event if held on campus.

What About the Students?

7. (C) Although Greece's overwhelming majority of law-abiding,
well-meaning students are those most directly affected by the
violence on campus, for the most part they remain quietly resigned.
XXXXXXXXXXXX estimates that the problems are created by approximately
2,000 hooligans - not all of them students - who are known to
police but are never arrested or detained. In Greece, students
elect student union representatives, who are affiliated with
political parties. Because the vast majority of students abstain
from the elections, in many cases leftist groups prevail in some
departments - these are the most vocally supportive of university
asylum as it is currently practiced. Student union representatives
also hold the keys to the appointments of rectors and other
administrative officials, representing 30 percent of the vote. As
a result, according to both XXXXXXXXXXXX and XXXXXXXXXXXX, a client
relationship between university administration and student groups
has been established that makes it difficult for administrators to
take a hard line on asylum. XXXXXXXXXXXX added that even political
parties sometimes cannot control their own student unions, as when
the New Democracy-affiliated student union at the Athens Law School
was reprimanded by newly-elected ND party leader Antonis Samaras
for opposing a proposal put forward by the university
administration for the creation of student IDs. Even parents of
students appear resigned to the phenomena of missed semesters and
delayed graduations.

The Social and Financial Costs are Staggering

8. (C) The extent to which a small number of troublemakers has
succeeded in confusing the concepts of freedom of speech and
freedom of movement is troubling, as are the social and financial
costs involved. Campuses have become havens for criminals, most of
which are involved in crimes such as drug trafficking, assault,
theft, counterfeiting of DVDs and CDs, looting and vandalism.
Greece's universities, instead of providing a stable learning
environment for Greece's future professionals and leaders, have
become a war zone where police are afraid to show up,
administrators are afraid to stand up and students are afraid to
speak up. Due in large part to constant disruptions to classes,
the average Greek student takes six years to complete a four-year
degree. Greek universities spend a whopping 12 percent of their
budgets each year to repair damage to university premises and
equipment caused by violence on campuses.

What Next?

9. (C) The fact that changes to the university asylum law are even
being discussed is a big step forward for Greek society, an
indication that, for many, this formerly sacred legislation may be
past its prime and no longer applicable to today's reality. The
Polytechnic revolution generation has become parents now, and their
children are reaping the not-so-generous benefits of a concept for
which they fought, which has now been distorted by common
criminals. Public debate notwithstanding, however, at this time
there does not appear to be the political will by the current
government to repeal the law. Traditionally, PASOK has been viewed
as a champion of all that the asylum law - in its intended form -
has represented. Insiders fear that repealing the asylum law would
cause a serious rift within the party, particularly within its
student and youth ranks. Tossing the ball back to university
rectors rather than initiating a more forceful approach to violence
on university campuses appears to be the preferred path of least
resistance , for now, for this government. In discussions with
Embassy officers, faculty and university administrators describe a
prevailing sense of fear and intimidation on many campuses. The
irony is that, due to the asylum law and the inability to protect
students and professors who dissent from hard line views, the only
place in Greece where freedom of thought is severely restricted is
on university campuses themselves.
Speckhard

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