By Brady Kiesling, Guest Contributor
Brady Kiesling served two tours as political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Athens before resigning in 2003 over USG policy. He is the author of “Diplomacy Lessons” (2006), and “Greek Urban Warriors,” his booklength study of Greek political violence, should be out later this year.
People in the USA who follow Greek political violence may wonder how Christodoulos Xiros, a man sentenced to six life terms as a member of a deadly terrorist group, “Revolutionary Organization 17 November” (17N), was allowed out of prison on furlough, not once but seven times.
How could the Greek state not have expected that he would at some point disappear? And then, of course, after he did disappear in early January 2014, Xiros made it worse by releasing a videotaped call for the public to rise up and overthrow the Greek state that had been so generous with him.
Actually, there is sort of an answer to that question, but it’s a long, odd one that may make readers uneasy. First there is a major societal difference: Greek politicians have a different set of incentives from U.S. politicians.
American voters tend to divide the world into good people, resembling themselves, and criminals, who are quite different. U.S. politicians (including elected judges, elected district attorneys, and/or elected sheriffs in many jurisdictions) are rewarded with large checks and motivated voters when they devote taxpayer dollars to locking up as many young black and Hispanic males as possible for as long as possible. Influential groups in this process include the owners of private for-profit prisons, the prison guards union (in California), and the National Rifle Association, which by espousing the need to lock up criminals before they misuse their constitutional right to concealed handguns obfuscates the fact that its true purpose is to sustain a hugely profitable arms race between police and drug dealers.
Greek politicians, however, are uneasily aware that they themselves and all their voters are criminals. Greek law is vast, draconian, and self-contradictory, because it is designed to protect everyone from everything while collecting an impossibly large share of GDP in taxes and making certain very specific things very briefly legal for very specific people. With mild exaggeration, every important action in a Greek person’s life is at least slightly illegal; a bribe, illegal to receive and illegal to pay, will temporarily legalize that action while criminalizing everyone involved in it.
Greek prisons are a product of this gentle, somber philosophy.
Though the courts are clogged and dysfunctional, at some point ordinary Greek citizens go to jail, and then, after a certain amount of time, they must emerge from it. There are no private prisons, no death sentences (in Greece or anywhere in the civilized world Europe), and no real life sentences. You can be sentenced, as one 17N member was, to 21 life sentences plus 2109 years, but the maximum you will serve is 25 years, possibly as few as 17 with good behavior.
Note that the Greek state has a strong incentive to let people out early, because existing prisons are hugely overcrowded, there is no money to build more (you can’t float a bond issue when everyone knows you are bankrupt), and even if there were money, any local group can and will use the Greek court system to block prison construction in its backyard for a decade or more.
In the boom years of the Greek welfare state, the Greek penal system hired sociologists and psychologists who read the latest scientific studies in Europe, most of which suggested that re-arrest rates dropped when families were kept intact through regular contact. The possibility of periodic furloughs also turned out to be a powerful incentive for good behavior in prison. A mixed committee of prosecutors, social workers, and prison staff evaluates the behavior of each prisoner and grants furloughs once a certain percentage of the sentence has been served, unless the committee detects (and justifies in writing) that there is a risk of flight or resumed criminality.
This generous penal system evolved to reconcile Greeks to their problematic legal/judicial system during a more prosperous, less violent time (though even now, the Greek murder rate is a third of ours – 1.5 per 100,000 to 4.7).
A system in need of adjustment?
One can make plausible arguments that the system needs urgent adjustment, since the majority of prisoners are now foreigners, many of whom lack social and family structures to justify the risk of letting them out on furloughs. A handful of disastrous furlough decisions have been made, with vicious armed robbers released to commit new and heinous crimes.
[Whether any corruption was involved I have no idea. There is a lovely case from 1986 where an international drug dealer, sentenced to 19 years, was mistakenly released after 19 months. The prosecutor who accused the judicial panel of bribery was herself convicted of slander, while those responsible for the “mistake” walked free. In 1992, 17N contemplated an attack on another clique of judges accused of taking such bribes, and its rival revolutionaries from ELA actually bombed the Thessaloniki courthouse on March 31, 1992 for the same reason, a protest designed to show that revolutionary justice was superior to the Greek state’s.]
Most furlough decisions, however, work out perfectly well. Remember too that Greek law did not, before 2004, dare to define a category of “terrorists” distinct from the rest of humankind. This was a prudent hesitation, if you consider Menachem Begin, Nelson Mandela or even Kostas Simitis, an estimable Greek prime minister (1996-2004), who had to flee Greece in 1969 after a feeble bomb attack against an Esso Pappas filling station and other U.S.-linked targets.
Compared with their fellow inmates, all thirteen 17N convicts were model prisoners, non-violent, intelligent, diligent in their prison chores, and self-controlled (with two exceptions: in 2009, an internal feud led to Christodoulos’s biting on the leg the man police said was 17N’s leader; in 2011, it was again Christodoulos who set fire to his mattress to win transfer out of the special 17N wing and into the main prison).
All but three of these 17N detainees were permitted furloughs, and all of them scrupulously observed the terms until now. Of these ten, seven have since been released after serving 3/5 of their sentences. They have integrated productively and so far harmlessly back into society.
But what about the 23 people 17N murdered: four Americans, two Turks, one UK citizen, and 16 Greeks? Blood calls out for blood. Yes, but Greek law, like U.S. law pre-9/11, allots punishment based on the degree of participation in specific criminal acts. Most people believe that cold-blooded killers should stay in jail, and Christodoulos Xiros was convicted of direct involvement in 10 killings between 1985 and 1992, based largely on a confession he himself signed.