A Greek court has convicted 15 members of the leftist terrorist group November 17. The group’s been held responsible for close to 2,500 crimes over the past 28 years. Sentencing is expected to take place this week.
Savas Xiros, left, talks with a fellow defendant during the trial.
Greece’s Minister of Justice hailed Monday's guilty verdict as a sign of the judicial branch’s independence. “The Greek government believes this is an achievement for the Greek culture of justice,” Philippos Petsalnikos said.
Coincidental arrest leads to trial
The nine-month long trial, one of the most important in modern Greece’s history, became possible after police coincidentally arrested one of the group’s members in June 2002. Savas Xiros had been severely injured when a bomb he was trying to plant went off prematurely.
Xiros admitted to killing British defense attaché Stephen Saunders in a drive-by shooting in June 2000. His arrest also led Greek and British investigators to an apartment held by Xiros for eight years that had been used to store the group’s arsenal of heavy weaponry, including anti-tank bombs and grenades.
While Xiros has been charged with involvement in over 80 terror attacks, 63-year-old Alexandros Giotopoulos emerged as the organization’s founder, head and chief mastermind during the trial.
The November 17 terror
The anti-American group called itself November 17 after the date of the student uprising in 1973 that called for the ouster of a dictatorial regime installed following a coup d’etat staged by a U.S. backed general in 1967.
The organization’s first victim was the chief of the Athens CIA section, Richard Wells, in 1975. The group also killed Pavlos Bakoyannis, a conservative politician, in 1989. His wife, Dora, is now mayor of Athens. "Greek justice spoke today," Dora Bakoyannis said after the verdict. "Its decisions are respected by all, but our relatives won't come back." In total, the group has claimed responsibility for 23 murders.
Defendants claim justice manipulated
The trial took place before a higher court without a jury because of concerns that fearing revenge, a jury might refuse to convict the defendants. Defense lawyers therefore accused the Greek government of manipulating court procedures illegally.
“In my opinion, the basic principle of equality, which calls for serious crimes to be tried before a jury, has been violated,” said Jannis Stamoulis, defense attorney for three of the 19 defendants.
The group also claimed that the convictions were politically motivated and dictated by “foreign centers of decision-making” such as the U.S. government in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
"Today Greece is a modern colony of the United States," Giotopoulos shouted after the verdict. He smiled and waved at people in the audience as he was lead out of the court room.
Yannis Serifis was acquitted because the statute of limitations had expired.
Others rejected such conspiracy theories, saying that the acquittal of several members of the group was proof of the court’s independence: One of November 17’s founders, Yannis Serifis, accused of having been involved in several attacks on U.S. citizens, was acquitted because the statute of limitations had expired.
Preparing for the Olympics
The manipulation claims “are closer to propaganda for supporters of the terrorists,” said Tassos Telloglou, a journalist and author of a book on the group’s crimes. “The Americans won’t be happy with Serifis’ acquittal. For them, the case will remain open.”
The inability of Greek officials to apprehend the group, which is listed by the U.S. as one of the world’s most wanted terrorist organzations, had long been a source of diplomatic tension between Washington and Athens.
With the Olympic games planned for the Greek capital in 2004, officials had been under intense pressure to track down and ferret out members of the group. Greek officials now plan to focus on international terrorist threats. The country will spend about €650 million ($792.5 million) on security for the games.