Athens, Greece – In a volatile political terrain, where anger is rampant and long-simmering political tensions dominate public debate, hunger-striker Nikos Romanos, 21, has emerged as a symbol of resistance for young Greeks whose lives are in limbo as the country enters its fifth year of recession.
The Greek economy is suffering one of the worst financial crises faced by a developed country. As a result of lofty public spending, which soared after Greece adopted the euro, in conjunction with widespread tax evasion, the country is bankrupt, heavily indebted and wrestling with strict austerity measures.
Romanos was caught up in the turmoil and is now in critical condition near death in a hospital after refusing food for more than four weeks.
Romanos’ story goes back to 2008, just before Greece started the downward spiral into the financial abyss. He was a 15-year-old schoolboy when he witnessed the murder of his best friend, Alexis Grigoropoulos, by a police officer in Athens, while the two boys were celebrating Romanos’ name day – the tradition commemorating the saint after whom Nikos is named.
Grigoropoulos’ killing sparked an unprecedented wave of protests in Athens, which raged for weeks as thousands of young Greeks took over the streets.
Right to an education
Little had been heard since then about Romanos until last October, when he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for having participated in an armed bank robbery two years before with three other young anarchists.
The case caused a public outcry after Greek police released digitally manipulated photographs of all four offenders that clearly showed an effort to erase bruises and cuts inflicted upon them after their arrests.
Romanos has become a figurehead of the anarchist movement and a 'martyr' for the majority of the Greek youth.
Romanos confessed to the robbery, possession of weapons, and declared political motives for his actions. Although initially charged with terrorism, he was acquitted of being a member of the urban guerrilla group Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire – a charge he had always denied.
While awaiting trial in prison, he married his girlfriend and successfully prepared for and passed the entrance exams to study at the School of Business Administration of Athens.
The Greek penal code grants educational furlough to inmates to attend lectures outside the prison, setting as a prerequisite only the assessment of the benefits the education may bring for the rehabilitation of the prisoner.
But Romanos’ demand for the study furlough was rejected on the grounds that he’s still awaiting trial on two counts and may abscond.
The rejection prompted the young man to launch a hunger strike on November 10, demanding his statutory right to attend university courses.
As Nikos Romanos’ condition deteriorated, he was transferred to a hospital on November 28, where he remains under police guard. Doctors say he could die at any time.
Minister of Justice Charalampos Athanasiou supported the decision of the prison council to reject the education demand and called on Romano to end his hunger strike.
The government, in an effort to ease tensions, has announced it will pass legislation allowing Romanos to pursue distance learning courses, a measure that indirectly suspends all study furloughs for other inmates.
Michalis Bratakos, president of Athens Technical College, told Al Jazeera such legislation would not offer any solution to Romanos’ case.
“It could be possible only for the theoretical courses,” he told Al Jazeera. “But when the programme requires four to six hours of laboratory courses per week, there is no way to replace the physical presence of the student.”
Criminal or victim?
Romanos, through his lawyer Fragkiskos Ragkousis, announced he would stop taking water if this legislation passes. He said he does not want to become an excuse for the government to further curtail the rights to education of other prisoners.
The Ministry of Justice declined to answer questions when asked to comment by Al Jazeera.
While the government is hardening its position on the case, solidarity protests and riots have taken place in major centres. Last Saturday, some 6,000 protesters clashed in central Athens with riot police who used tear-gas and water cannon to beat back demonstrators.
|Romanos’ father Giorgos met with Greece’s prime minister but was offered no compromises [AP]|
On Monday, Romanos’ father met with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and the minister of justice to discuss a solution about his son. The government reiterated its no-movement position during the meeting.
“My child will continue [the hunger strike] and a large part of the Greek society knows what is right. Nikos’ health is critical and the possibility of death is increasing every hour that passes, with whatever consequences for the government,” Giorgos Romanos said after the meeting.
Playing with people’s lives
With the case now in complete deadlock, the debate over Romanos’ fate has become highly politicised.
For many the state is playing political games with Romanos’ life. His doctors warn he is in critical condition and could succumb to heart or kidney failure at any time.
“The Greek government attempts a political crackdown on an anarchist prisoner, not to say on the anarchist movement in general,” Costas Efimeros, an investigative reporter and co-founder of the media platform The Press Project, told Al Jazeera.
“While the government knows that Nikos Romanos will not compromise, they refuse to offer a way out of the deadlock under the pretext that he could abscond.”
|Supporters of Nikos Romanos clash with police [EPA]|
According to Efimeros, the reason behind the government’s rigidity is to escalate tensions in a deeply divided and now largely impoverished society.
If Romanos’ health deteriorates further and violent protests erupt again, the government will step in to place itself as the guarantor of stability and order in the country, Efimeros said.
“The government had a unique opportunity on Monday – when the prime minister met with Romanos’ father on his own request – to end the deadlock,” he said.
“Romanos has become a figurehead of the anarchist movement and a martyr for the majority of the Greek youth.”
Efimeros said granting the anarchist the education furlough he demands would force him to end the hunger strike and strip him of his “martyr” status, which would give a great advantage to the ruling party.
“Instead, they have decided to harden their position leaving no space for a solution,” said Efimeros.