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Greek State Prosecutes 21 Environmental Defenders

Above photo: Screenshot from The Real News.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris, reporting for The Real News Network from the courthouse in Thessaloniki, Greece, the second largest city in the country. We are here today for the first day of a trial against 21 local residents involving charges of various criminal offenses in connection with an alleged arson at the gold mine of Eldorado Gold in Halkidiki, Greece.

Eldorado Gold Corporation is a Canadian gold mining company. It has assets in Canada, TurkeyGreeceRomaniaBrazil and Serbia. It’s headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia, and its shares are listed on the stock exchanges of Toronto and New York. Eldorado Gold’s largest shareholder is Van Eck Associates, which owns over ten percent of the company’s shares. Van Eck is an investment management firm headquartered in New York and having nearly 50 billion dollars of assets under management.

Eldorado has extensive mining concessions and four mining projects in Greece. One of those projects is the Skouries mine, an open pit and underground gold and copper mine. Skouries is situated in Halkidiki, a northern region of Greece possessing extraordinary beauty. The Skouries mine has been carved out of a pristine, old-growth forest in the region.In 2003, Eldorado obtained the rights to mine the 12 billion dollars worth of gold and copper that is estimated to lie in the ground at Skouries, and at the nearby Olympias project. That deal saw the Greek state receive, at least nominally, a mere 11 million euros. But Maria Kadoglou of Mining Watch Greece says that this money was not ultimately retained by the Greek state but was used rather to pay the debts of the previous owner of the mine, a company called TVX.

Eldorado owns its stake in Skouries through a Greek subsidiary, Hellas Gold. Eldorado owns 95 percent of that subsidiary, the remaining 5 percent is owned by a Greek construction company, Ellaktor SA. That company is controlled by the wealthy Bobolas family, which also has important interests in the Greek media. In 2015, Ellaktor Managing Director Leonidas Bobolas appeared before a public prosecutor after his arrest by the Financial Crime Unit. He was accused of major tax evasion. He was subsequently released after paying the sum of 1.8 million euros, and was arrested on the basis of evidence uncovered in the so-called “Lagarde list” investigation. That list was leaked by an HSBC Bank employee to the French authorities and was then forwarded to the Greek government by then French Finance Minister, Christine Lagarde.

On top of the destruction of this ancient forest, residents of Halkidiki are worried about the mine’s impacts on tourism, agriculture, fishing, all of which are pillars of the local economy. Perhaps most importantly, local opponents of the mine fear that mine waste will cause extensive depletion and contamination to the water supply. They are particularly concerned about the health effects of heavy metals and asbestos contained in the ore. Eldorado Gold now owns all gold-mining projects in Greece. The corporation operates in Greece in the context of a severe debt crisis and ensuing subjection to a shock therapy by its European creditors and the IMF since 2010. According to a 2015 report by the Dutch NGO SOMO, or the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, Eldorado Gold has a well-developed tax avoidance structure, using 12 Dutch mailbox companies and various subsidiaries in Barbados as well as the British Virgin and Cayman Islands.

Author Naomi Klein discussed Skouries in her recent book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. Ms. Klein wrote, “In the Skouries forest near Ierissos, the Canadian mining company Eldorado Gold is planning to clear-cut a large swath of old-growth forest and reengineer the local water system in order to build a massive open-pit gold and copper mine, along with a processing plant and a large underground mine. Despite its remote location, the fate of the Skouries forest is a matter of intense preoccupation for the entire country. It is debated in the national parliament and on evening talk shows. For Greece’s huge progressive movement, it is something of a cause celebre: urban activists in Thessaloniki and Athens organize mass demonstrations and travel to the woods for action days and fundraising concerts.”

Local resistance to the Skouries mine is also explored extensively in the Avi Lewis documentary, This Changes Everything, which is based on Ms. Klein’s book. Local campaigners have complained about media bias in reporting about the Skouries mine. They argue that few of the numerous protests against the mine have been reported by Greek media, and if reported at all, articles often showed pro-mining bias.

The Greek media landscape has often been denounced as corrupt and intrinsically linked to big business interests. Reuters dedicated a special report on the issue, showing deep-seated conflicts of interest of media corporations’ journalists, whose interests are intertwined with those of the private sector and politicians. Local activists say that this conflict of interest is blatant in the mining projects of Halkidiki. The Bobolas family, for example, has both major media assets and major interests in Ellaktor, which owns a significant stake in the Skouries mining project.

In February 2013, opposition to the mine exploded when dozens of masked men armed with Molotov cocktails stormed Skouries. After torching bulldozers, trucks and portacabins belonging to Eldorado’s Greek subsidiary Hellas Gold, the group used tree trunks to block police from reaching the site. At the time of the attack, Greece was governed by the right-wing New Democracy Party. Shortly following the attack, the Minister of Citizen Protection at the time, Nikos Dendias, travelled to Skouries and demanded that the perpetrators be arrested. This resulted in the detention of 33 local activists.

Subsequently, Greek authorities charged 21 of the alleged attackers with forming a criminal organization and carrying out a series of felonies, including arson, attempted homicide and unlawful possession of explosive materials. All 21 defendants are local residents in northeast Halkidiki and have participated in protests against the Skouries mine. They reject the Greek state’s charges against them. Those who were detained in the aftermath of the attack accused the Greek police of various human rights violations. Their complaints ultimately resulted in a damning report by Amnesty International, issued in March 2013.

The Amnesty Report stated: “Amnesty International calls on Greek authorities to conduct prompt, impartial and effective investigations into allegations of human rights violations by police in the village of Ierissos in Halkidiki. Among the allegations are that chemical irritants were used by police against protesters in Ierissos in an unnecessary or disproportionate fashion causing injury, and also that DNA samples were collected from residents in an inappropriate manner, and persons questioned by the police, apparently on suspicion of possible involvement in an arson attack on the work site of the mining company Hellas Gold, were denied access to a lawyer before or during questioning.”

After several extensive delays, the trial of the 21 accused environmental activists began on October 1, 2018. On that day, I spoke at the courthouse in Thessaloniki with Vasilis Tzimourtos, a lawyer who is defending several of the accused. I first asked Vasilis about the individuals he represents and the charges against them. Here’s what he had to say: 

VASILIS TZIMOURTOS: Listen, I would like to start from the beginning by saying that I am a humble member of the movement, a resident of Ierissos, and, after that, I am a lawyer representing some of the accused, nine of them to be exact. The anti-gold mining movement was created spontaneously when companies such as ELDORADO came in a threatening way assisted by the Greek setting and the suppression system, and –I dare say- by the stance of justice as well, at least up until that time.

The residents of Chalkidiki are plain, ordinary people; we never expected to find ourselves in the eye of the storm; we never chose this, this came upon us. We simply cry out for clean water, we want to deliver the land to our children and grandchildren, just like we found it. At first, there was not even a single medium that would give us voice. Then we started increasing in numbers, we became bothersome; we were bothering the State, the company and most probably the suppression forces too.

The movement was starting to grow in volume. People realized that we were not fighting for our own private interest, we were talking about shared goods: water, health, life. It was then that they wanted to get people scared, somehow. The first and simplest way was introducing the so-called ‘legal violence’ in massive peaceful protests and demonstrations. Exceeding the limits of rational suppression, I would claim. As a result, people got scared and would not talk, would not protest, would not participate in rallies, would not even oppose to this online.

An important part of this intimidation process was the criminalization of our fight. An entire prosecution industry was established and as a result, we currently have about 500 or more defendants in my area alone, which means that there is at least one defendant from each family –I believe this is the ratio. The evident objective was hostageship and, eventually, gagging people. This trial is essentially the tip of the iceberg. 

It is the penultimate trial in a series of trials. Fortunately, the previous ones had a favorable outcome, as expected, because we are talking about unsubstantiated charges and total lack of evidence. They called the entire movement a criminal organization without ever explaining to us how that happened.

DIMITRI LASCARIS After speaking to Vasilis about his clients, I asked him whether his clients had a message for the Canadian government, which tends to pursue policies that are favorable to the extractive industries. 

VASILIS TZIMOURTOS: I don’t think that my clients, ordinary people, my friends, have anything against the Canadian people as a people. I believe that nobody would want their rivers ruined, or their forests ruined, or their water or health ruined. Perhaps the message should be addressed in a louder way from both citizens and our countries’ governments alike. Unfortunately, not the case.

We want to preserve our land and rivers, which is better than profit, in fact an ephemeral profit for these companies. Because their profit is ephemeral and uses up natural resources, natural resources are exhausted and, consequently, there is no, like everybody promises, sustainable development. Development through such companies has proven to be everything but sustainable. I think you know this better than me, this applies everywhere, not just in our case.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: The alleged arson occurred under the right-wing New Democracy-led government of Antonis Samaras. When the attack happened, his government declared this to be a “terrorist” attack. I asked Vasilis if the Syriza government of Alexis Tsipras had taken a different approach to this prosecution. Here’s what he said:

VASILIS TZIMOURTOS: Listen, my clients, clients/friends might have different opinions on that matter. So, all I can do is share my personal opinion about what is said and what is a widely shared opinion among the people. Any essential difference in terms of the progress of the case has been minimal. The only difference until then is that trials are still underway, and people are still held hostages. Therefore, in practice, the criminalization system knows very well that it is doing its job right; it knows that it already has some success rate, regardless of whether in the end judgements are acquittals. 

They are trying to exhaust all forces of each ordinary person, either financial powers, or mental forces, or ethical forces, and psychological forces through ongoing friction, ongoing presence at Court, massive DNA sample taking by force, invasion of EKAM (Special Anti-Terrorist Unit) in broad daylight as if war had broken out, they invaded homes and kidnapped people; there is nothing left that we have not yet suffered during the past 3 years in this small area.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Following my discussion with defense lawyer Vasilis Tzimourtos, the three judges who are presiding over the trial began the proceedings by calling out the names of the accused and asking them to declare their presence.

Local sources tell us that the trials of these 21 environmental defenders may take months. The Real News will continue to follow this story. In our next report, we will visit the mine site and will speak there with Maria Kadoglou of Mining Watch Greece.

This is Dimitri Lascaris, reporting for The Real News Network from the courthouse in Thessaloniki, Greece.

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