The History of CO Struggle in Greece

Compulsory military service was introduced in Greece by the Constitution of 1911. A year later Greece was engaged in consecutive wars (two Balkan wars, the First World War and the Campaign in Asia Minor), which lasted a decade. During the final two years of this decade there was a vast movement of desertions from the Greek Army, due essentially to the long period of mobilization (there were conscripts who were called up in 1911 and not released until 1923). There aren't known cases of desertion for ideological reasons at that time.

Jehovah's Witnesses

Over the next 60 years nobody except the Jehovah's Witnesses contested the compulsory military service. The Military Courts were condemning the Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors to extremely long penalties - it was common for a Jehovah's Witness to stay 10-15 years in a military jail. Throughout the Civil War (1946 - 1949) some of them were given the death penalty and shot (Ioannis Tsoukaris on February 11, 1949 and Georgios Orfanidis on March 2, 1949). The last Jehovah's Witness who was condemned to death was Hristos Kazanis (1966), but under the international pressure, his penalty was reduced to 4 years in prison. Another Jehovah's Witness, Vasileios Karafatsas was assassinated on 23 June 1971, whilst he was being transferred from one prison to another.

The compulsory military service and the preponderance of the army in Greek society were contested in the beginning of the 1980s. Three years earlier (in September 1977), sustained pressure by the Council of Europe had obliged the Greek government to vote in a law providing for Jehovah's Witness COs, according to which they would either serve 4 years of unarmed military service or would be condemned to 4 years imprisonment. The movement for the respect of the human rights and civil liberties of conscripts preceded the first debates on the right to refuse military service. Whilst the parties of the Left were very suspicious of conscientious objection, the young ecological movement, a part of the anarchist movement and some of the thousands of draft evaders living abroad initiated serious discussion on the issue. Thoughout this decade, the "Oikologiki Efimerida" (Ecologist Journal) and the "Arnoume" (I refuse) became the main contributors to the debate on conscientious objection and antimilitarist culture.

Ideological CO

In December 1986, Michalis Marangakis publicly declared himself a conscientious objector for ideological reasons. His declaration, a real manifestation of antimilitarism, was the turning point for the CO movement in Greece. He was arrested three months later and condemned to 4 years in prison, later reduced to 26 months at appeal. Shortly after this, Thanassis Makris suffered an identical fate: he was condemned to 5 years in prison, reduced to 18 months at appeal. Both were released after having served two thirds of their respective penalties.

The arrests of Michalis Marangakis and Thanassis Makris and their struggle for the respect of the right to conscientious objection provoked an unprecedented movement of international solidarity. Both endured a series of long hunger strikes (Michalis Marangakis did three of 71, 50 and 20 days respectively whilst Thanassis Makris did two of 55 and 33 days), which finally resulted in the government giving up and releasing them.

International solidarity

During this period of three years, the Greek Ministries for National Defence and for Foreign Affairs were receiving hundreds of letters from abroad every day, demanding the recognition of the right to conscientious objection and calling for the release of Michalis Marangakis and Thanassis Makris. (Indeed, the President of the Republic of Greece confessed during a meeting with representatives of the Association of Conscientious Objectors in February 1990 that during 1988, as Minister for Foreign Affairs, he was receiving 600 protest letters per day!) This campaign was the result of the combined efforts of Amnesty International, the European Bureau for Conscientious Objection and War Resisters' International.

In Greece the Committee for Solidarity With Conscientious Objectors organised hundreds of meetings as well as several demonstrations all over the country. In just one year more than 20 people declared themselves ideological COs. Thanks to the actions of Michalis Marangakis and Thanassis Makris we overcame the fear of being imprisoned and forced the government, the political parties and even society to face the reality of conscientious objection.

The overwhelming international solidarity shown to Greek conscientious objectors forced the government to extend the possibility of unarmed military service to all COs (February 1988) and some months later, to present a proposal for a law recognising the right to conscientious objection and introducing an alternative civilian service, the length of which should be double that of military service. However, that proposal was never presented to Parliament.

During the 1990s, fear of an intense international campaign made the Greek government reluctant to arrest ideological COs. (Although the Jehovah's Witnesses who presented themselves to Military units and refused to wear uniform were regularly sentenced to 4 years in prison). However, arrest warrants were pending and, under pressure from the Police, most CO's lived quasi-clandestinely. They had (and still have) no right to a passport and had (and still have) to change address in order to avoid arrest. Police officers regularly visited their parents' homes and threatened them.

Between 1990 and 1997, only three ideological COs were arrested: Nicos Maziotis and Pavlos Nathanail (both anarchists) in 1991 and Nicos Karanicas in 1995. Although the trials of Nicos Maziotis and Pavlos Nathanail took place during a period of nationalistic paranoia and both of them had rejected any kind of civilian service, they were only given suspended sentences of 1 year in prison. Some months later Nicos Maziotis was arrested again, but after a 50 day hunger strike he was released. Nicos Karanicas was condemned to 5 years in prison, but this was later reduced on appeal to 1 year suspended sentence.

Legal recognition

On June 6, 1997 the Greek Parliament voted in Law 2510/97 which introduced a substitute civilian service 18 months longer than the military service. This was the start of a new era, with conscientious objectors struggling for the respect of their rights and the reduction of the length of the substitute civilian service. The continuing prosecutions against Lazaros Petromelidis are a consequence of this struggle.

Yannis Chryssoverghis

The Association of Greek CO's supports conscientious objectors in Greece. They were officially formed in 1991 and have been instrumental in effecting changes in Greek CO law and practice. They can be contacted at: Association of Greek COs Tsamadou 13, 10683 Athens; tel +30 6944542228; fax 2104622753; email greekCO@hotmail.com; website: www.omhroi.gr/SAS/