Greece Weighs Ending Law Barring the Police From Campuses

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of Greece, right, is applauded by lawmakers after presenting his government’s policies during a parliamentary session in Athens on Saturday.CreditCreditPetros Giannakouris/Associated Press

Greece Weighs Ending Law Barring the Police From Campuses

By Niki Kitsantonis

ATHENS — Greece’s conservative prime minister says he will undo a longstanding law banning the police from universities — a risky move for a new leader who came to power just weeks agopromising greater stability.

The law was passed in 1982, several years after the fall of the country’s military dictatorship, which had violently suppressed a student rebellion. Such a protection, which was meant to safeguard students and freedom of speech, exists nowhere else in Europe and is virtually sacrosanct in Greece.

But critics say it has been exploited over the years by self-styled anarchists and other militants, leading to violence and intimidation at universities, where, they say, homemade firebombs are often stored and later lobbed at police officers during street protests.

“Universities will be purged of firebombs, troublemakers and drug dealers and will return to students, professors and employees,” the new prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, told Parliament on Saturday, outlining his government’s priorities, which include greater public safety with heavily armed police officers in the capital.

Abolishing the law preventing the police from entering universities, called the asylum law, is to be debated in Parliament this week before a vote next week, and threatens to ignite a potentially violent backlash, some say.

“Asylum was established in a different era of authoritarian regimes to protect the free movement of ideas,” said Stavros Lygeros, who was inside the Polytechnic — now the National Technical University of Athens — on the night of Nov. 17, 1973, when tanks rolled and killed at least 23 people as soldiers and the police ended a sit-in that he and fellow students had started.

Since then, many campuses have come to be in the grip of what Mr. Lygeros, now a journalist, referred to as “a culture of violence,” which authorities will have a tough time rolling back, he said.

“If they want to end it, there will be an internal war,’’ he said. ‘‘They have to be prepared as this could result in deaths. There will be resistance.”

The government, though, says it is determined to change the law.

“We can’t continue passively watching the debasement of our country’s higher education sector, pretending nothing is happening, fearing the reactions of the few that this distorted state of affairs benefits,” Niki Kerameus, the education minister, said in an emailed statement.

Some campuses had become “lairs of violence and lawlessness,” she added, saying the government “will enforce the law scrupulously.”

Marching in the center of Athens on Nov. 17, 2018, during an annual demonstration at the American Embassy commemorating the 1973 student uprising that helped topple Greece’s United States-backed junta.
CreditLouisa Gouliamaki/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Under the asylum law, top university officials must invite the police onto the grounds in the event of a crime. But universities, fearing protests by students, have been loathe to summon the police.

University administrators have long called on the Greek authorities to intervene in cases of lawlessness, which successive governments have been reluctant to do, worried about a student backlash.

The situation worsened during Greece’s financial crisis, when social unrest filtered through to campuses, fueling a wave of violence against professors. In 2010, some professors were threatened with iron bars.

Although the intensity of the violence has eased since then, assaults continue, as does the intimidation of professors and students, while drug dealers and migrant street vendors often find refuge on campuses.

Last month Konstantinos Tokmakidis, a professor at the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, in northern Greece, said he was assaulted by around 30 students who, he said, had threatened to push him out of his seventh-floor office window.

Students, who want access to university senate meetings, say he attacked them, posting a video online showing him lashing out at one.

In June, Maria Efthimiou, a history professor, was warned by members of an anarchist sit-in before the philosophy faculty at Athens University to stop criticizing them “or come face to face with us.”

That occupation was started last year by the anarchist group Rouvikonas, known for vandalizing government buildings and foreign embassies. It triggered an intervention by a far-right group, the Greek Socialist Resistance, which sprayed swastikas on the walls. As usual, the police were not summoned.

Mr. Lygeros said the real problem was that the law has been abused by “organized groups numbering thousands of people” seeking to impose their views.

“It’s the culture of post-dictatorship Greece in decay,” he said.

Mary Bosi, a professor of international security, was doused with red paint by self-styled anarchists while giving a lecture at the University of Piraeus in March of last year.

Still, she objected to the scrapping of the asylum law “which is an important symbol of free speech,’’ she said. Rather, she wants a debate on how to stop violence.

Police officers throwing tear gas toward protesters in Athens on Nov. 17, 2018, during clashes after a rally commemorating the 1973 student uprising against the military junta.
CreditLouisa Gouliamaki/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

She drew links between some of the perpetrators on campuses and armed guerrilla groups, saying her assailants were connected to the Conspiracy of Cells of Fire, which sent letter bombs to European leaders at the peak of Greece’s debt crisis.

Ms. Bosi said she feared “an uptick in violence,” though not on university grounds, pointing to a spike in threats on social media. Anarchists are warning of “war” amid rumors of a police sweep in Exarchia, an anarchist stronghold next to the old polytechnic.

“We have to set limits,” Ms. Bosi said. “Political and social forces should rally together to isolate these elements.”

But students and leftists plan to oppose any change to the law.

University asylum is “a democratic conquest of the student movement and society,” according to a statement from the national student union, PASP, which is affiliated to the Socialist PASOK party. That party was behind the passage of the original law.

“Even the colonels’ junta did not feel it had the political legitimacy to invade occupied universities,” it said in a statement.

An umbrella group of leftist student organizations, EAAK, has called for “mass protests” on Tuesday, accusing the government of seeking “to criminalize our struggles and terrorize the student and popular movements.”

On Sunday members of Rouvikonas, the anarchist group, distributed leaflets in four languages at major tourist spots in the capital, decrying a “far-right wave.”

“The caldron is simmering in Greece, and all the new measures taken to stifle it will work for a while and then the caldron will burst,” the leaflet said.

Still, Ms. Kerameus, the education minister, said she did not anticipate protests, claiming most citizens back a change in the law. The last opinion poll on the issue, in 2009, suggested that Greeks were split on its abolition.

Odysseas Zoras, the top official of the University of Crete, said both academics and society were ready for an end to an antiquated concept, introduced in Bologna in the 11th century to avert the church’s intervention in academia.

“The asylum law obstructs freedom of speech,” he said. “It no longer protects it.”

A version of this article appears in print on , Section A, Page 9 of the New York edition with the headline: Greece May Again Allow Police at Universities. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe