Why is Greece heading the EU presidency when our human rights are in Ruins?

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The red carpet was laid out in Athens last Wednesday as European Union leaders gathered to celebrate the Greece’s six month presidency of the Council of the European Union, assumed for the fifth time in its membership history.

In statement after statement they gloated over the country’s progress and its unique chance to speed up its recovery in the coming months.

“Greece carried out reforms and the EU showed solidarity,” said Council President Herman Van Rompuy.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said Greece was “healing its wounds” and vowed to work for democratic legitimacy during the presidency.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso added: “Greece is turning around its economy.”

Well, what a joke, I say. Glitzy photo ops cannot conceal grim realities. Greece is a bankrupt, failed state.

Unemployment reached a historic high of 27.8 per cent in October 2013.

Desperate young people are leaving the country in droves as austerity measures and extreme taxation rob their parents of their savings.

Many within the International Monetary Fund, the EU and the European Central Bank – the real overseers of Greece’s so-called rescue plan – have already admitted it will not escape its debt spiral if it continues on this self-destructive austerity path.

However, it’s not the country’s debt or unemployment levels that should have disqualified the Greece from taking on the EU presidency – but its appalling human rights record should have.

I am not referring only to undocumented migrants, who get stacked in detention centres under conditions that Human Rights Watch has called “dangerous” and “inhumane”.

Our political class has turned against all of its citizens, particularly the most vulnerable ones.

One case that highlights the aggression of Greek authorities can be witnessed in the documentary Ruins: Chronicle of an HIV witch-hunt, a film I directed and co-produced alongside a brilliant team of fellow Greek journalists.

The story in Ruins makes the blood boil.


‘A modern-day witch trial’

In May 2012, a few days before the national elections, hundreds of women were rounded up from the streets of central Athens and subjected to a mandatory HIV test by state doctors and police.

Those diagnosed positive for the virus were indicted as part of a group prosecution that brought to mind medieval witch trials.

Without evidence or a single complaint against them, 30 women were charged and detained for illegal prostitution and a felony of causing deliberate harm to alleged clients.

They were detained for months in a prison system that is near breaking point, where they were subjected to further humiliation and hardship.

Before being led to prison, they had their mugshots published on the internet and television in a ruthless shaming campaign that exposed faces and bodies marked by drug use and the daily struggle of a life on the streets.

The case was as horrendous as it was emblematic.

The women’s public shaming was a reflection of the shaming of Greece in the international political arena.

The country has undergone a profound humiliation after being put under fiscal supervision and threatened with pariah status if it didn’t meet impossible goals that have wrecked its economic sovereignty.

It isn’t surprising that opportunistic nationalists and extremists have capitulated on the country’s collective shame.

Among them are the neo-nazi Golden Dawn party but also, members of the political centre like socialists Andreas Loverdos and Michalis Chrysochoidis, the former PASOK ministers who orchestrated the operation depicted in Ruins.

Both ministers were re-elected.


Attacking the vulnerable

Under pressure to remain on its “European course”, the Greek political class has turned on the most vulnerable members of society.

The women in the documentary were injecting drug users, themselves victims of the ongoing dismantling of the public health sector and specifically of cuts that affected harm reduction and syringe exchange programs.

Their HIV/AIDS diagnoses match those of hundreds of other drug users, who in 2012 became the most affected group of an unprecedented rise in new infections.

Most of the women have now been acquitted or have seen their felony charges reduced.

They are currently suing the state and its representatives both at home and in the European Court of Human Rights.

The latter has seen new cases against Greece pile up as consecutive pro-austerity governments have strengthened the state’s police arm in a show of might against the weak, and in a failed attempt to wipe out urban misery.

Migrants, drug users and trafficked women are the scapegoats of an ailing society.

None of this was addressed in Prime Minister Samaras’ joint statement with Barroso last Wednesday.

Samaras predictably trumpeted his motto of a Greek ‘success story’ saying that he wanted more Europe as he pounds Greeks with more taxes and cuts.

But make no mistake: there are real people paying the price of all of this posturing.

Ruins features interviews with two of the women who described heart breaking accounts of their detention and the effect of their arrests on their families.

One of them said: “we are people, we are not garbage.”

Her testimony may never make the official history of the European Union but it is more important than any of the polished speeches we heard this week.

The Greek EU presidency shows the EU’s determination to uphold its rules in the face of a massive and uncontrolled overhaul of the rights of its citizens.

The sight of Greek politicians presiding over grandiose rituals may be laughable but there is nothing funny about the lives ruined by their actions.


You can watch Ruins online here (subtitles available in English, Finnish, French, German, Polish, Spanish and Swedish):


You can also read more about the ongoing legal cases of the women featured in Ruins. Here you can also make a donation to support their demand for justice: http://ruins-documentary.com/en/donate/