ATHENS – The reassignment to regular duty of some 1,500 police officers who had been used as personal bodyguards by politicians and people deemed VIP’s by the government means a bigger presence of law enforcement in Greece’s capital, particularly parts of the downtown that had nearly been taken over by criminals, drug addicts and prostitutes earlier this year, authorities said.
Even Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who is warring on unlawful immigrants and taken a hard-line on crime, will lose some of his personal police protection, while those assigned to other political leaders, ministers and business executives will be transferred to street duty and other police work.
A sweep of the Omonia Square area near City Hall and adjacent neighborhoods before the critical June 17 elections emptied the streets and plazas of criminal elements, as well as unlawful immigrants, some 30,000 of who are expected to be held in detention centers. Crime has been surging because of the country’s economic crisis that has put nearly 1.1 million people out of work and leaving hundreds of thousands without any income at all. Austerity measures demanded by international lenders have led to pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions as well.
The return of some 1,500 police officers who had been guarding VIPs to active duty will pave the way for the force to put into action a plan designed to improve safety in central Athens, the newspaper Kathimerini reported, adding that the scheme has been drawn up and is awaiting approval from Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias, who announced a few days ago that police ranks would be swelled by the return of officers previously assigned to VIP duty. The plan includes the detention of illegal immigrants, drug addicts and prostitutes in the city center.
“The aim is to improve the quality of people’s lives in downtown Athens,” a Public Order Ministry official told Kathimerini. “Our priority is to remove illegal migrants and drug users from areas such as the Archaeological Museum, the University of Athens, Omonia Square, Syntagma and Monastiraki.”
Until earlier this year, those areas had nearly been ceded to criminal elements who operated in broad daylight, and to drug users who could been shooting up against the walls of the University of Athens in mid-afternoon, next to scores of unlawful immigrants selling counterfeit goods. Despite a police sub-station behind the Archaeological Museum and with police patrols standing within sight, criminals, drug dealers and users conducted their business without being apprehended, but tourists who took photos of police were warned to delete them or have their cameras confiscated.
Mayor George Kaminis is putting together a 10-year-plan to revive the city’s decaying center, whose filthy, grey concrete buildings are overrun with graffiti. Omonia Square, which used to boast trees and a water fountain, was replaced with concrete under former Mayor Dora Bakoyianni and is a barren area. Kaminis said he wants restaurants to put chairs around the area, although it is a rotary constantly filled with traffic next to the sidewalks. More than a dozen hotels in the area have closed because of crime, as tourists were afraid to go out at night, or even in the day sometimes, and the economic crisis forced other facilities to shut as well.