Syriza censured over release of terrorist
In the early hours of June 29, 2002 a home-made bomb exploded in the hands of Savvas Xiros as he walked towards a shipping office in Piraeus chosen as a target by the November 17 terrorist group.
Almost blind and severely burnt by the blast, the 30-year-old painter of religious icons gave a hospital confession about his participation in a series of N17 killings over more than two decades of western diplomats, Greek businessmen, and US servicemen.
For his crimes, he was sentenced — along with 14 other members of the leftwing group — to five life terms in prison.
But he may soon be released after the Syriza-led government of Alexis Tsipras, the new Greek prime minister, pushed through legislation that would allow Mr Xiros to serve out the rest of his sentence at his family home wearing an electronic tag. The legislation is part of a package of measures aimed at ensuring more humane treatment of convicted prisoners.
The episode has served as a reminder to many Greeks of Syriza’s ties to unsavoury elements on Greece’s far left while also antagonising international partners at a time when a cash-strapped Athens is desperate for their support.
“It is incomprehensible how the government could have made a priority of passing a piece of legislation that is clearly designed with Xiros in mind,” said George Momferratos, whose father, a newspaper publisher, was shot dead by the group in 1985.
He and other critics of the move, among them the families of N17 victims, say leniency is unjustified because Mr Xiros has never publicly renounced the group’s commitment to the use of violence in pursuit of its revolutionary aims.
They also reject the government’s claim that the legislation was drawn to serve a broader prisons policy. “As the justice minister admitted to parliament, only one other prisoner in the entire system meets the same disability criteria as he does for being permitted to serve out their term at home,” Mr Momferratos said.
David Pearce, the US ambassador to Athens, called the measure “a profoundly unfriendly act . . . There is no place for convicted terrorists in civilised political discourse or back in Greek society.”
The Obama administration has repeatedly pleaded with Greece’s eurozone creditors to extend greater support amid growing concerns that Athens may be nearing a default. Yet the US has also long been critical of different aspects of the Greek police and judiciary’s handling of N17.
Born at the height of the Cold War, the group is named after the day in 1973 when the military junta ruling Greece crushed a student rebellion by driving a tank through the gates of the Athens Polytechnic, the city’s leading university.
Between 1975 and 2002, its members committed 23 murders while wreaking havoc with dozens of bomb blasts, rocket attacks and bank raids.
In lengthy proclamations sent to a leftwing Greek newspaper after each assassination, the group explained its Marxist-Leninist views and advocated the violent overthrow of the country’s pro-western government. It specifically targeted US citizens because of their government’s perceived role in supporting the junta.
The group ‘s first victim in 1975 was Richard Welch, the CIA station chief in Athens who was gunned down outside his home as he returned from a Christmas party.
Mr Xiros, the son of a Greek Orthodox priest, was convicted of two murders of US servicemen in 1988 and 1991 while his brother, Vassilis, was found guilty of killing the UK military attache to Athens in 2000.
He received official promises of lenient treatment in exchange for his co-operation and complied, offering names to authorities — including two of his brothers.
But the government did not reciprocate. Over the years appeals court judges dismissed repeated pleas that he be released from jail on health grounds.
To some observers, Mr Xiros’ case is entwined with the country’s financial crisis. They view the legislation as another concession by Mr Tsipras to Syriza’s powerful far-left faction, which is opposed to his plans to agree further economic reforms with Greece’s international creditors in return for another bailout package.
“The government is definitely trying to send signals to Syriza’s far left that it’s still a revolutionary party even though it’s taken a democratic course after winning the January election,” said Brady Kiesling, a political commentator and author of a book on N17.
Nikos Voutsis, Greece’s interior minister, accused opposition lawmakers of trying to “create an atmosphere of fear and division over a law that protects the rights and humanitarian needs of prisoners”.
While in opposition Syriza lawmakers backed Mr Xiros’ campaign for release from jail. Two MPs testified on his behalf at an appeal hearing last year. Last month, far-left activists demanding immediate reforms of the prison system staged a peaceful occupation of the Syriza party headquarters for several hours.
But if family is any guide, there is no guarantee that a released Mr Xiros will be reformed. Another brother, Christodoulos, serving six life terms for murder, disappeared last year while on parole from jail. He was arrested in January after 12 months on the run. Documents founds in a house he rented indicated he was planning a bomb attack against Korydallos prison in Athens aimed at releasing members of another leftwing terrorist group, the Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire.