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July 31, 2004

Athens Goes 'Rambo' on Security


by Jim Lobe

ATHENS - The guns are not pointing at visitors, they do not need to. The men carrying them have visitors to the new Olympics stadium in their sight all the way.

The men are carefully positioned to see there is not a moment anyone could be out of sight. A visitor begins to feel like a suspect until he can prove himself innocent, by doing nothing.

Down by the side of the white beams holding the futuristic new stadium together a group of workers, black or apparently of Mediterranean origin, were busy planting shrubs to give the surroundings that landscaped look. A group of policemen placed themselves across the road to watch every move they made.

The real alert has not even begun yet. And all this is in any case only the more visible part of the security around the main stadium and all other venues.

Control rooms watch every inch of land around, every person on camera. The police think nothing of driving down the wrong lane with security flights flashing to confront anyone who could look a foreigner. After three bomb blasts outside a police station in central Athens early in May, following the March 11 bombings in Madrid, the police are clearly jumpy.

And it is clear who they are watching, and watching out for. After a group of Moroccans were held responsible for the Madrid blasts, few people with Mediterranean or Islamic looks seem to venture near the new facilities to see what they look like.

Several reports suggest that people with these looks have had more than a few visits from the police. Amnesty International says it is concerned about reports that "refugees, migrants, asylum-seekers and the homeless are being rounded up and detained as the Greek government mounts the biggest security operation in the history of the Olympic Games."

Amnesty said: "The Greek government must protect athletes, officials, journalists and spectators. It is responsible for the security of its citizens and guests. However, this must not happen at the expense of human rights, especially the human rights of vulnerable groups."

Amnesty International says it is concerned that "under the pretext of building up security, state officials are violating, with impunity, basic human rights and encouraging discrimination on racial grounds."

Amnesty expressed concerned about several issues. These include:

  • Lack of transparency in the way the security apparatus will operate, particularly regarding mechanisms for control and accountability;
  • Muslims being targeted in a discriminatory manner in the name of security;
  • Violation of the basic human rights of socially marginalized groups of people;
  • Impunity for security and state officials.

Amnesty points out that the new legislation on "terrorism" does not fully guarantee a fair trial and does not clearly define "terrorist acts."

Amnesty added: "Olympic Games conducted against a backdrop of security measures which violate human rights would be the very antithesis of the games' original purpose to promote peaceful competition, the pursuit of excellence and common humanity."

Several of the security measures have been put in place to handle a major attack. Aerial surveillance systems are being put in place by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which was requested to step in after the March 11 bombings in Madrid. Patriot surface to air missiles have been installed around Athens and in other cities where football competitions and some other sporting events will be held.

Local reports suggest that more than 70,000 security officers will be on duty, and that the organizers will spend about $1.5 billion on security. Several countries are sending in their own armed guards to provide security for their athletes.

But rights advocates are less concerned about the expense than over the people who may be targeted. The Greek government declares there are no ethnic divisions within the 10.6 million population. About 1.3 percent of the population is Muslim.

Rights advocates say visitors could be particularly vulnerable. The announcement that a separate detention center has been prepared for foreigners who break the law has led to renewed fears among minority groups within Greece.

Nikos Constantopoulos, president of the opposition Coalition of the Left, said in a statement that Greece was under pressure to accept "Rambo mechanisms of surveillance and repression."

The Greek branch of Amnesty International says "the games are escorted by extensive security measures that are unprecedented for Greece. Even though it is recognized as the right of the country to take measures that are deemed necessary, there is, however, fear that the measures affect negatively basic human rights."


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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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