Center for Strategic Communication

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.

Here is where it gets complicated.

17N was broken up not through the valiant efforts of the CIA and FBI, nor Scotland Yard, nor the Greek police. Instead, a 17N bomber named Savvas Xiros accidentally blew himself up. The clues in his bag, and alert neighbors, led Greek police to two 17N apartments full of fingerprints and other forensic data. Badly injured, Savvas agreed to a deal with police. In exchange for more generous treatment in prison but also the right to shield certain people close to him, Savvas claimed responsibility for most of 17N’s
attacks. He gave away to police those 17N members or sympathizers he was sure he could not save, while lying to protect others.

Police were smarter (and perhaps more unscrupulous) than Savvas calculated. They filled many of the holes in Savvas’s skewed disclosures with their own theories and guesses, some correct, some not, to put together an externally plausible picture of a terrorist organization. They then persuaded suspects to sign matching confessions, through a combination of scary threats and generous promises. If this seems strange, remember, that police were working under enormous time pressure. Once Savvas and his friends had access to lawyers, the flow of information would cease. Greece, meanwhile, was desperate to wrap up 17N before the 2004 Athens Olympics. By that standard the police succeeded brilliantly. A critical mass of 17N ended up behind bars. But police had not had the luxury of testing Savvas’s stories against the hard forensic evidence before going public with their solution.

In retrospect, by analyzing three notebooks found in a safe house giving detailed expense records and 17N member codenames, it is easy to show that the official police version of 17N, accepted by the courts (and by the U.S. government) with only insignificant critical scrutiny, is wrong in important details. First, we are missing several key members of 17N, at least from the pre-1997 period. Second, because of multiple, glaring errors in the confessions, nothing in them can be trusted without
independent evidence that in most cases does not exist.

Some defendants played only minor roles

It is thus very difficult, between Savvas’s improvisations and those of the police, to say which of the defendants were genuinely guilty of murder and which played only minor logistical roles in the organization. Police made Christodoulos Xiros, Savvas’s older brother, a central member of 17N, and he agreed to accept that role. Afterwards, however, he strenuously denied it and offered clever arguments that his confession, written in police jargon by someone illiterate in revolutionary ideology, could not
possibly be correct.

Christodoulos was a committed Maoist, highly sensitive to insult and injustice, braver than average, selfreliant, with a pathological sense of personal responsibility. Ideologically, he believed in violent revolution. At the same time he was ill-suited to practicing it with the clandestine ferocity his confession attributed to him. He was distinctively tall, overweight, with back problems and a weakness for wine and song. Also, he was highly social, a well-known community activist/protester. Though he was more than just a helper in car thefts (the most he admitted), a close reading of eyewitness reports makes him a less-than-ideal suspect for any specific murder.

Greek authorities are not fools, though they sometimes pretend to be. Of the six 17N members receiving life sentences, it is interesting that the three who received furloughs in prison were the three, including Christodoulos, against whom the evidence for deadly violence was flimsiest. This is not an accident, I think. Greeks understand that law and justice are not the same thing, and make unofficial allowance for the disconnect between them. And Christodoulos had been offered at least informal
guarantees of generous treatment in exchange for the highly incriminating confession he signed. Should such promises be respected? Usually yes.

What went wrong, and how dangerous is it?

Christodoulos’s furloughs were logical, then, by prevailing community standards. So what went wrong, and how dangerous is it? Anyone watching Christodoulos’s video performance, as he read woodenly from a conventional revolutionary tract, can feel sure the revolution has not found a charismatic new leader or an inspiring new ideological synthesis. Even with his graying hair touched up, Christodoulos is neither Che Guevara nor the Greek revolutionary chieftain Kolokotronis. 17N members had made clear in 2002 that their organization, founded in 1975, had already outlived its ideological/political reason to exist.

Christodoulos called himself a “free member of 17N” but was careful not to claim that 17N is reborn. Even so, his jailed colleagues have written to distance themselves and reaffirm that 17N’s cycle is complete. The police purport to believe instead that Christodoulos has linked up with other revolutionaries and is offering his skills and experience to a new generation of terrorists. This is difficult but possible.

The current generation of political violence in Greece is carried out by anarchists of various flavors.

Hatred of the state and conventional society is an adequate excuse for robbing banks, but not (with a couple of controversial exceptions) for deadly violence, the ultimate infringement of the personal liberty the anarchists preach. Rejecting authority and hierarchy themselves, they have no way to mobilize unwilling workers and peasants to overthrow capitalism and bourgeois democracy.

Christodoulos, however, belongs to a Marxist tradition that believes in the state and in organized social blessings such as free education and health care for all. He is also strongly nationalist, whereas his alleged comrades in the anarchist movement despise the nation as another infringement on personal freedom and self-identity.

Lacking a common goal, any alliance he creates with them will be purely tactical and short-term. But really, what does he have to offer, 20 years after he left the armed struggle himself, to make up for the unwelcome police attention he attracts? Not a great deal. The revolutionary environment has changed beyond all recognition, both politically and technologically. And despite one vague and open-ended threat, Christodoulos’s call is not for deadly violence but rather for neighborhoods to organize to guard their members’ electricity meters against cut-offs for non-payment.

My personal reaction to Christodoulos’s escape is tainted, perhaps unfairly, by press reports that he had found a girlfriend in a previous furlough. Any romantic notions aside, the key goal of the 56-year-old’s escape and video proclamation is not to launch a new wave of terror. His motive, more than any other, is to redeem himself in younger eyes as a genuine revolutionary entitled, even after his embarrassing confession in 2002, to a share of the prestige 17N managed to enjoy with a substantial minority of Greek society back when a communist revolution seemed possible and even potentially an improvement over a corrupt and dysfunctional status quo. That, of course, was a long time ago.

Does Christodoulos’s motive pose a threat to Greek or U.S. national interests? Only if we get hysterical about it. Do the details justify hysteria? Probably not.