Since there’s been a lot of talk of dodgy cops on here recently (for anyone who’s counting 90 websites are now carrying the piece which led to fitwatch being closed by the filth) it seem a good time to publish this interview with Simon Chapman which first appeared in Freedom Newspaper. Simon faces court in January to fight a sentence of 8 years after being arrested and fit up by Greek police way back in 2003.
What was happening in Thessaloniki in 2003 and why did you go?
In June 2003 there was going to be summit of the European Union heads of state. Previous summits had seen large mobilisations against them. I had been to a few info-nights about the coming mobilisations in Greece and we knew it could be a big one. I’d heard a lot about the anarchist scene in Greece so I decided to go and find out for myself.
What was the mobilisation in Thessaloniki like?
There was a broad spectrum of people, from anarchists, migrant groups, extra-parliamentary left, communists, trade unionists and so on. There were people from all over Greece and a fair proportion of people from across Europe and the world.
There was a demonstration in solidarity with migrants on the day before the summit started. That passed off relatively peacefully. The next day, the EU Summit itself was held at a conference centre outside of Thessaloniki so people took hired coaches up there. The cops gassed everyone as per usual and it was pretty chaotic.
I arrived in Thessaloniki later that evening and headed for the Polytechnic, which had been occupied to function as a convergence space. The main demonstration would take place in central Thessaloniki the next day, 21 June 2003.
What happened on the day you were arrested?
Various blocks left from the Polytechnic and started making their way towards the centre of town. We were near the back of one of them when tear gas canisters started raining down on us. There was total chaos, people running in all directions. I lost the people with me almost immediately.
I was lost in the gas cloud when suddenly I was hit very hard on my head and I tried to run and was hit many more times. I tried to keep moving but fell down to the pavement. By now there must have been at least four cops beating me all over, my head, my legs, everywhere. My glasses got kicked into my face and lost. If you have to rate cops for good beatings then I reckon the Greeks are in the premier division.
I was dragged to the side of kerb and made to sit down. Riot police placed black rucksacks next to me and started collecting molotovs abandoned in the street and placing them next to me or in the rucksacks. I was taken down a side street and the squad of police wanted me to carry the bags and I refused, so they gently persuaded me with batons and fists. I gave in. I had a strong impression of being fitted up.
So the cops made me carry two black rucksacks full of molotovs, strapped to my chest. Some of the bottles were leaking petrol and soon my shirt and trousers were completely soaked in it. If I had caught fire I would have been a human torch, no hope of survival. They put my hands in the twist position in rigid handcuffs, very tightly, behind my back.
The police took me out with them like a human shield to continue attacking the demonstrators, who were throwing molotovs and stones and anything they could find at the police, and therefore at me too. I had a cop holding each arm dragging me along, but of course they had armour and shields. I’m in the front-line, except on the wrong side. Every now and then the team of cops escorting me would stop for a break, and take turns beating me up. After two hours of this they took me to a hospital and I got my head stitched up.
There had been around a hundred arrests by the end of the evening, and they were gradually released over the next couple of days, leaving seven of us behind: Spyros, Dimitris and Michaelis (Greek), Fernando and Carlos (Spanish) and Kastro, a Syrian immigrant, and me.
A film crew had been nearby when the cops were planting the rucksacks on me, and this had been broadcast live nationally at the time, and then repeated on all the channels. My lawyer presented the video evidence and photos which clearly exonerated me. The prosecutor just stuffed the evidence in an envelope without looking at it and put it into a filing cabinet. He said something in Greek and our lawyers looked shocked. The seven of us were being remanded.
What was it like being a British prisoner in a Greek prison?
The other prisoners were generally sound. The first bit of Greek that I learnt was “Give me a cigarette”. A few spoke english very well so I picked up the rules, such as they existed. One guy – who on reflection seemed to be the prison daddy – spoke excellent english and told me that I had nothing to worry about – if I didn’t start any trouble, I’d be fine. Except I couldn’t see, or understand anyone, or work out how the fuck people live in a country where it is more than 45 degrees celsius all day every day.
The first couple of weeks were the most difficult as I couldn’t see anything, as my glasses had been smashed when I was arrested. I’m really very short-sighted, but thankfully a friend knew where I had last had my eyes tested and she sorted me out some new specs and sent them over to Greece. The day they arrived was one of the best days I had – hey, I could read! If only I had some books! And its nice to recognise people in the corridor and not fall over their feet.
How did the hunger strike come about?
Kastro, one of the seven prisoners, wanted to start almost immediately in order for us to get bailed out of remand real quick, but we were told to wait a couple of months as the entire legal system in Greece grinds to a halt over the summer. So we had time to prepare ourselves: you can’t just go from a normal diet to a hunger strike.
We ate well over the summer but then started reducing our intake, stopping eating red meat, then dairy products, then pasta, then bread, then vegetables and so on, until in the last weeks before the hunger strike was due to begin in October, we survived on just fruit juice. So we had already lost a fair bit of weight by the time we officially notified the prison governor of the start of the hunger strike.
Can you tell us something about the solidarity campaign that was forming in Britain and elsewhere? How did this affect you, the defendants?
It was vital for us in so many ways. Some things were just practical, like paying money into our prison accounts so we could buy extras from the shop. The campaign grew rapidly, so by the time the hunger strike started there were meetings, assemblies, demonstrations, occupations all over Greece, every day.
The London-based solidarity campaign were doing benefits, direct action, media interviews daily. The solidarity campaigns provided us with direct material assistance, and more importantly, hope. We never felt alone.
I received stacks of letters and books – writing to prisoners is so important, even if you don’t have much to say. I’d get letters from places like Chile, with a photo of a solidarity demonstration outside the Greek embassy in Santiago. Writing to prisoners always sends hope, a message from somewhere else, an understanding of the prisoners’ solitude.
What were your best and worst prison experiences?
They happened simultaneously: at the end of the hunger strike, we were suddenly told we were being released, and then we were told a minute later that our lovers and our friends had been arrested outside the prison. And there was a good chance that Kastro would be arrested by immigration police because they thought he was an illegal.
So we pushed these carts with our belongings, clothes, books and headed for the exit of Korydallos prison in Athens. And there are beautiful gardens, immaculate green lawns, flower beds all the way up to the main gate.
This is the way that visitors come through: and there are dozens of rabbits hopping across the grass, eating the flowers. When we see this, we also know that there could be hundreds of riot police outside the prison gates. It was a strange walk, knowing you’re walking towards the prison exit, but at the same time we had no idea what waited for us on the other side.
How long were you locked up in total, and how did it feel being released?
I was arrested on 21 June and released on bail five months later on 27 November 2003. My hunger strike had lasted the last 53 days. We were bailed but had to stay in Greece: this lasted a few months, until the charges against us were dropped in February 2004.
The night after our release there was a benefit party at Villa Amalias, a squat in Athens. We all went along but ended up being overwhelmed by how people are having a great celebration for our freedom, and they know everything about us through the solidarity campaign, but at the same time we don’t really know anyone. Being lonely in a crowd of five hundred people.
Most of the ex-prisoners ended up sitting upstairs in a quiet room because, certainly for me, I wasn’t ready to deal with that many people in one hit. I needed time to think about real life again, to start eating again, though being careful about what we ate so as to not over-stress our digestive systems. Lots of noodle soup.
Can you explain what happened during the first trial in 2008?
I got a call in autumn 2005 from my lawyer saying that the prosecutor had appealed against the original decision to drop the charges. There were a lot of legal arguments and appeals from both defence and prosecution over the next few years, until in the end a trial date was set for January 2008.
My lawyer had said it wasn’t necessary for me to attend the trial, which was perhaps not a bright idea because I was convicted on all counts, possession and use of explosives – the molotovs, resisting arrest and riot. I was sentenced to eight and a half years prison, suspended until the Appeal trial which determines your final sentence. Three others of the original seven prisoners were also convicted and given similar sentences. Since we found out about the new trial date we have had a lot of preparation to do to get it right this time.
What are your feelings about the upcoming trial in January?
I had got psyched up for the appeal trial to take place in September recently, but for various reasons it got delayed until January 2011: its frustrating but at the same time the delay gives us more time to work on our defence, and to raise funds to cover the court costs. The lawyers are working for free but there are court expenses that have to be paid.
How would you describe the Greek anarchist scene? Compared to the English?
In the major cities you see anarchist graffiti everywhere, and anarchist ideas seem to have a higher profile there. At the same time, their society is deeply polarised. The movement there is based on lots of small local groups that from time to time work together, or sometimes against each other.
Here’s another example of the difference: in London we have Critical Mass bicycle rides to stop the traffic. In Athens, there are motorbike demonstrations, three hundred motos roaring up to the prison gates. After revving their engines and making an incredible amount of noise, they split but then regrouped and ended up outside the official residency of the prime minister of Greece, they got there before the pigs who turned up too late, and then gassed everyone, including themselves, because they had forgotten to put their own gas masks on. Anarchists in Greece get the job done.
Can you see a connection between the events of 2003 and the current economic and political situation in Greece?
The original slogans against the 2003 EU summit said “No to the Europe of bankers and bosses”. The same is true today. There are millions on strike against bankers’ austerity cuts across Europe, in Greece, in Germany, in France, everywhere. Our analysis of the conflict of interest between bosses, bankers and pigs on one side, and the working people on the other side has gained clarity in these years of capitalist crisis. We need to decide which side we are on. And also we have to be conscious of the consequences of resistance. They might beat us up, they might put us in prison, they might fuck us over for years. But the resistance is everywhere. And we wont stop.
Join the facebook page and support the Thessaloniki 4 Campaign and if your in London there’s a benefit on Saturday 27th November and more info here on how to help.