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Banning Protests in the Birthplace of Democracy

Nineteenth-century painting by Philipp Foltz depicting the Athenian politician Pericles delivering his famous funeral oration in front of the Assembly. Public domain

The Greek government’s decision to ban protests and rallies during the anniversary celebrations of the Polytechnic uprising has raised questions about the state of Democracy in its birthplace.
Opposition political parties and human rights groups have blasted the decision, claiming that this is the first time since the 1967-1974 dictatorship that protests have been banned.
They say that the ban is unconstitutional and the increasingly authoritarian center-right government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis is using the coronavirus crisis to limit civil liberties in Greece.
The issue was referred to Greece’s highest administrative court on Monday by opposition parties and human rights groups. The court rejected the injunction to lift the ban on gatherings.
No blank check for governments
However, the ban created divisions among legal experts and bodies, with the Association of Judges and Prosecutors saying that a blanket ban is illegal and calling for its withdrawal, while prominent professors of constitutional law arguing in favor of the ban.
“The decision of the Greek authorities to issue a general ban on all public gatherings across the country is disproportionate and violates Greece’s obligations under international human rights law,” said Nils Muižnieks, Amnesty International’s regional director for Europe.
He added that some restrictions on the right of peaceful assembly to control the pandemic may be permissible, but they must meet the principles of strict necessity and proportionality.
“Governments have no blank check to restrict human rights, even in these difficult times,” he stressed.
New law on protests
Critics say that the Mitsotakis administration intends to limit the democratic right of protest and point out that last summer a new law was approved regulating street demonstrations, which it says cause frequent disruptions to the public and affect commerce.
The law mandates the appointment of a liaison officer, restrictions on demonstrations or outright bans if authorities deem they threaten public safety. It also holds organizers accountable for harm or damage caused by protesters.
Unionists and opposition parties accused the government of acting preemptively to quash any opposition to possible fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
Call for restraint
PM Mitsotakis says that the ban on rallies for the Polytechnic anniversary is a necessary measure to contain the spread of the virus this year.
“At this critical moment,” the Greek Prime Minister said, the historical anniversary cannot be a cause of division and and the loss of human lives be a field of partisan experimentation,” noting that just one day before, a record 71 of his fellow citizens had lost their lives while battling Covid-19.
“I call on all parties to show restraint,” he stated. “And I call all political leaders in a joint initiative to honor the Polytechnic uprising, led by the President of the Republic. With a simple visit and with a flower (laid at the Polytechnic monument), but with a lot of responsibility for the good of all Greeks and the homeland.”
Government officials stress that Greece did not commemorate Independence Day on March 25th because the country was in lockdown and the October 28th parade was cancelled because of the second coronavirus wave. They argue that November 17 cannot be an exception to this rule.

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