Posts Tagged 'court'

Venus in the dock


By Harry van Versendaal

Klaus Boetig set foot in Greece for the first time on Christmas Day of 1972. He came on a train from Germany and spent the night at a cheap hostel in Plaka. Since then, the 63-year-old Bremen-based author has visited Greece almost every year and written more than 70 travel guides on all parts of the country. Many of these have been translated into more than 10 different European languages and three have been published in Greek. His travel pieces have appeared in dozens of newspapers, magazines and information brochures, including a German publication prepared by the Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO).

Ironically, Boetig tries to avoid Greece these days. Two years ago, his name was embroiled in a controversy that still lingers.

It all began when the German weekly news magazine Focus came out with the now-infamous cover depicting the iconic Venus de Milo statue draped in a Greek flag and showing her middle finger. “Cheats in the Euro family,” read the headline. The cheats, of course, were the Greeks.

The publication, which was published on February 22, 2010, prompted a group of Greek lawyers to sue a dozen staff journalists at Focus as well as Boetig, a freelancer, for defamation and libel. Boetig, the prosecutor said at the time, consciously misguided readers about the character of the Greek people.

Boetig’s article was headlined: “Culture shock: Can the Greeks be understood?” A court summons summed up the author’s alleged claims: “The Greeks live off borrowed money; they maintain clientelistic relations with the country’s politicians in order to protect their illegal homes; they make rules only to break them; they use their religion to solve all their problems; they don’t know how to read; they do not respect their working hours and, finally, they use the European Union’s tourism funds to build private residences.”

Katerina Fragaki, one of the Greek lawyers who filed the lawsuit, slams the article as “an insult to our honor and integrity.”

She says the authors made and distributed false claims about the Greeks while knowing that those claims were false. Moreover, Fragaki adds, the cover and the articles carried comments and opinions that, directly or indirectly, vilify the Greek people, their history and their culture. “These articles in effect put in doubt the social and moral value of Greek society and disparage its integrity,” she says.

Lost in translation

From his home in Germany, Boetig claims it’s all a big misunderstanding. He describes how he was contacted by the online edition of Focus to contribute a story for the website’s tourism section. “I was told it should be witty, funny and even ironic like the other articles for these series before. I agreed.”

Unfortunately for Boetig, around the same time, the print version of Focus released the controversial issue which did not include his article. To make matters worse, he says, the editors decided to put the opening lines of his article, together with his name in big red letters, on the site’s homepage next to a picture of the cover, “something I did not know beforehand and was never asked to approve.”

The misunderstanding appears to also have a more literal dimension. “Those Athenian lawyers that took me to court do not speak and read any German at all, or not enough to understand a funny and ironic article,” Boetig says.

Monika Freude, Boetig’s lawyer on the case, says the prosecution tried to ground its allegations on a translation of the piece prepared by one of the Greek lawyers involved in the case (lawyers in Greece have the right to make official translations). This lawyer, Freude says, basically copied an inaccurate and incomplete translation making the rounds on the Internet. Freude, an Athens-based lawyer from Germany, said the defense had to make sure a new official translation by the Foreign Ministry was made available to the court.

A German speaker who is not connected to the case and who was consulted by this newspaper believes Boetig’s article is written in a thinly veiled ironic tone. Satirizing people’s egoism, tolerance for corruption and aversion to rules, the article brims with cliches and generalizations that seem to mostly describe provincial and mostly outdated attitudes and habits, like suggesting that streets have no names or that Greeks are too attached to their Orthodox saints.

Boetig claims to have received different feedback. “Most German readers of the article loved it, because in all the words they felt my love for Greece,” he says, adding that several philhellenic groups outside the country had asked permission to reprint his story. “Also many German-speaking Greeks in Germany assured me that they felt neither embarrassed nor offended by my article,” Boetig says.

He is less willing to defend the cover. “It was unfriendly, but no matter for the courts,” says Boetig, who is not represented by the Focus legal team.

Distasteful? Yes. But punishable?

However, upsetting as the cover or the article may be to some people, legal experts say their publication was not a punishable offense.

The Greek law in this case must be read in the light of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Drafted in the framework of the Council of Europe, this multilateral international treaty enjoys primacy over national law.

“If the Greek courts condemn the author of the article at issue, the victim will eventually bring a case against Greece before the European Court of Human Rights,” explains Vassilis Tzevelekos, a lecturer in public international law at the University of Hull.

The Focus case is a special one as the alleged insult does not target a specific individual, or group of individuals, but rather the Greek people as a whole. However, the ECHR does not protect national pride as such. This makes this case different to, for example, the Mohammed cartoons controversy in Denmark, where religious freedom is pitted against freedom of expression.

The prosecution could claim that the right of free expression was abused — something that the ECHR prohibits.

“Freedom of the press goes as far as where one’s personality is offended; this is a fundamental rule of the journalistic code of ethics,” Fragaki insists.

However, experts unrelated to the case say neither the cover (Boetig does not face charges about this) nor Boetig’s story was abusive. Tzevelekos says Focus should be allowed to send the message it wants to send, using the means it considers appropriate for that purpose.

“Freedom of expression is a vital condition for pluralism and polyphony within a democracy. Everyone, and especially the press, shall be free to make value judgments regarding questions of public interest. Offensive or even shocking as they may be, they must be tolerated. This is the essence of democracy,” he says.

Holding Germany responsible for much of the austerity measures imposed on the country in the last couple of years, Greek media and political satirists on TV and radio have often verged on politically incorrect territory. The sight of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Nazi uniform is not an uncommon one. An Athens radio station was recently fined 25,000 euros by Greece’s radio and television watchdog after one of its journalists, Giorgos Trangas, verbally abused Merkel last year.

In principle, Greek courts can lawfully restrict the freedom of expression. But for an intervention to be legal it must be prescribed by law, pursue a legitimate aim, and be “necessary.” This last clause suggests that the limitation will be proportionate, meaning that a fair balance is struck between the aim of the limitation and the means used by the state for that purpose — in this case the sanctioning of Focus.

“I really find the picture [of the Venus de Milo] at issue to be in bad taste, not to say cheap,” Tzevelekos says. “However, the fact that I disagree with it or that I see it as ‘trash-press’ does not mean that the editors should be deprived of their freedom of expression,” he says, adding that he sees absolutely no reason why the Greek courts should interfere with the freedom of expression of the foreign press to protect national pride.

If Greek courts are really interested in protecting national pride, Tzevelekos says, they will have to prove how much they value freedom of expression.

“National pride is not protected in court,” he says.

Life goes on

The statute of limitations has expired for offenses which carry a prison sentence of up to one year, as long as the crime was committed before 31.12.2011. This concerns the charges of defamation, which foresee penalties of up to one year. The charges for libel however foresee penalties of at least three months’ imprisonment and up to five years. The next hearing at the Athens Misdemeanors Court is on Friday.

Meanwhile, back in Bremen, Boetig says the controversy has not really affected his life. “I got many friendly letters from all over Greece and Germany. Some friends in Greece wanted to ask the mayor of their village to name a ‘plateia’ (square) after me, some others wanted to collect money to pay for my lawyers,” he says. Because of burgeoning legal expenses and the slow pace of proceedings, Boetig is concerned the trial will leave a hole in his bank account.

“Nevertheless, some money hopefully will be left at the end to pay for my daughter’s wedding in July.”

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Pandora in Kosovo

Photo by Matt Lutton

By Harry van Versendaal

A ruling by the United Nation’s highest court last week on Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008 prompted frustration in Belgrade and triumphalism in Pristina but legal experts remain uncertain about the exact meaning and the implications of the decision for the divided region and beyond.

The much-anticipated decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague, which was passed in a 10-to-4 vote by the judges, had a Delphic quality: While saying that the declaration of independence was not in violation of international law, it stopped short of stating that Kosovo is a legal state.

“The ruling in fact has very little real meaning. In fact, we are not clearer on whether Kosovo’s secession is legal than we were before. The court simply said that the declaration of independence as a statement did not infringe any international laws. Anyone can declare independence, in other words. What matters is the act of recognition – an issue that the court steered well away from,” James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkan expert at the London School of Economics (LSE), told Athens Plus.

Lack of clarity did not stop Pristina from hailing the decision, which is non-binding, as a victory. Serbs, their fortune and confidence tarnished by a series of lost wars in the 1990s, reacted angrily at the prospect of giving up this chunk of land traditionally seen as the nation’s historic heartland. Lawmakers this week passed a resolution that their country will never recognize Kosovo as an independent state, while the government launched a diplomatic marathon to halt further recognitions by foreign states. Kosovo, which has been under UN administration since a NATO air raid in 1999 ended a Serb crackdown on independence-seeking ethnic Albanians, has so far been recognized by 69 states, including the US and most EU governments – but not Greece. It has a population of 2 million, 90 percent of whom are ethnic Albanians.

Pandora’s box

Analysts had warned that a pro-independence ruling would have a Pandora’s box effect, emboldening separatist movements in areas such as Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Somaliland and northern Cyprus. In a nod to such concerns, shared by states like China, Russia, Spain, Romania, Cyprus and Greece, the court deftly fought shy of a political decision.

“The ruling has very little effect on separatist movements – and that is where the judges have been particularly shrewd. Again, anyone can declare independence. It is whether it is recognized that matters,” Ker-Lindsay said.

For Stefan Wolff, professor of international security at the University of Birmingham, the ICJ did not rule on whether the declaration of independence had any legal implications, which is essentially what other secessionist movements would need to make Kosovo’s case a precedent. But legal technicalities, he warns, will not be enough to stop the trend. “There is little doubt in my mind that secessionists elsewhere will interpret the court opinion in their favor,” Wolff said.

Might is right

Does Cyprus have reasons to worry? Ker-Lindsay says that the ICJ ruling will have no immediate effect on Cyprus, as the unilateral declaration of independence by the Turkish Cypriots was in fact explicitly declared to be illegal by the UN Security Council. “Had it happened today, we could be dealing with a very different situation. But it didn’t and we aren’t,” he said.

Despite successive UN resolutions, Turkish troops continue to occupy the northern third of the island since 1974. During a visit to Nicosia last week, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was at pains to reassure Cyprus.

“This was very specific expertise, it has nothing to do with any other cases in the world… It’s a unique decision, in a unique situation with a unique historical background,” he said.

LSE historian Svetozar Rajak is more skeptical, suggesting that a lot depends on your friends. “As the case of Kosovo has shown, if there is enough backing from the international community, any situation, in existence today or in the future, including Cyprus, may end up before the ICJ,” he said.

What next for Serbia?

Analysts agree that instead of wasting time and energy on what seems to be a lost cause, Belgrade should engage in practical cooperation that will allow it to one day join the EU.

But a pragmatic shift won’t come naturally. Reacting to the ruling of the ICJ earlier this week, Belgrade said that it will not change its policy of treating Kosovo as its territory, while it vowed to continue its fight to reopen status negotiations at the UN’s General Assembly.

Fortunately, this time war is not in the cards. Rebuffing nationalist calls for a military response, Serb President Boris Tadic this week said Belgrade will seek a compromise. “We are in a very difficult situation… but we won’t beat the war drums,” he said. “We cannot protect our interests in Kosovo without integration into the European Union and good relations with the United States, Russia and China.”

That does not mean that Belgrade will not be tempted to block Kosovo’s membership of regional organizations and even block the free movement of people and goods. But it’s hard to see how it will stick with a policy that undermines its EU hopes for too long.

“Given the catastrophic economic situation Serbia is in and obvious inability of the government in Belgrade to offer solutions, it may be tempted to accept any and every carrot from the EU, in exchange for the recognition of Kosovo independence,” Rajak said, adding that there seems to be little effective opposition from the existing political factors at home.

Some observers, including Rajak, are rather concerned about Pristina’s unilateral action in northern Kosovo. “I am afraid that the ICJ decision may encourage some in Pristina to contemplate forceful reintegration of the territories north of the Ibar River,” he said of the ethnic-Serb-dominated region that has effectively been under Belgrade’s control.

A considerable number of Serbs live on territory controlled by Pristina, in the south, in enclaves like Strpce near the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Gracanica, a suburb of Pristina. Analysts agree that the court ruling has not reduced the need to discuss the future of these populations — it’s just that the rules of the game have changed. “After the ICJ opinion, Serbia is no longer in a position to dictate terms and should approach Kosovo as an equal partner,” Marko Prelec, an expert of the International Crisis Group, told Athens Plus.

It may sound unbearably cliche when it comes to the Balkans but experts urge both sides to set their differences aside and look ahead.

“In the end, both Serbia and Kosovo want to join the EU and neither can really have an interest in mutual hostility,” Wolff said. “It is important that leaders on both sides calm down now, make a realistic assessment of the situation and figure out a way forward.”

Stalingrad

By Harry van versendaal

PAME activists are in full-throttle mode. Members of the Communist Party (KKE)-affiliated union began the tourist season with a takeover of the Acropolis, unfurling a huge banner with big red letters urging the “peoples of Europe [to] rise up” against the machinations of their capitalist (albeit democratically elected) governments.

After images from the besieged ancient citadel were broadcast around the globe, the battleground moved to the port of Piraeus, the capital’s main link to the islands, where PAME’s flag-wielding battalions has repeatedly blocked the boarding ramps of ferries. Blind to their own best interests, it seems, disgruntled travelers fumed at the jailhouse habits of the unionists.

A court had preemptively ruled the action illegal and abusive but little does it matter. After all, it was KKE spokesman Makis Mailis who said recently that his party does not recognize the country’s Constitution because it did not vote for it, pushing KKE deeper into surreal territory.

KKE wants to have its cake and eat it too. It willfully takes part in the country’s parliamentary system, it keenly receives state money to cover its operation costs and the salaries of its deputies but it refuses to recognize the law, the courts and their rulings on the grounds that they are the design of the class enemy.

The party’s posturing is not just outrageously eclectic; it is quintessentially totalitarian: the communist apparat is animated by a metaphysical conviction that he is the sole possessor of the truth. Anyone who is out of sync with the communist creed is either a class enemy or a mislead proletarian.

More than two decades since the Berlin Wall crumbled into souvenirs, reducing Europe’s communist parties to irrelevance, Greece’s local breed has proved to be surprisingly enduring. True to its Marxist roots, the KKE discourse had so far been a mix of sterile rejectionism and tacky utopianism – harmless and within limits of the politically acceptable.

But as Greece descends into crisis, KKE has raised its Stalinist head. If the party so cynically thrives on mayhem and disaster, it is because it views the meltdown in existentialist terms: No crisis, no party. It treats the country’s debt death spiral as testimony to its anti-capitalist credo. And it is doing all it can to accelerate the collapse of the capitalist system by banking on the country’s flagging fortunes. Prime Minister George Papandreou was right in saying that the nihilists at Perissos “mistake capitalism for the nation.” (The problem, of course is that he has left the nation at their mercy by refusing to enforce the law).

Plato and Aristotle were the first to warn of the perils posed by “the tyranny of a majority,” i.e. the situation whereby the biggest group feels confident and entitled to impose its will on a powerless minority. Those philosophy giants of the ancient world would perhaps be surprised to see the extent to which their modern day heirs have let themselves become hostage to the intolerant yens of a minority “vanguard.”


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