#Skouries: branding the local community a criminal organization

Tolis Papageorgiou

Prominent Greek environmental activist Tolis Papageorgiou is due to appear in court today 07 July 2014. Together with 28 co-defendants, Papageorgiou faces charges of establishing a criminal organization and instigating violence for his action against ore mining in north-eastern Halkidiki, in particular in the Skouries forest, that has over the past two years become emblematic of the situation.

A civil engineer by profession, Papageorgiou hails from Ierissos, the village at the epicentre of the resistance movement to mining. After a successful career in Thessaloniki, he chose to return to his hometown in the early 1990s, when it became clear that ore mining was set to be expanded to such levels that the whole of north-eastern Halkidiki, a region of exceptional natural beauty and biodiversity, was to be transformed into an industrial wasteland, leading to the utter destruction of its delicate ecosystem and, consequently, of its society and culture.

Some historical background

Flooding in Stratoni, February 2010. The red circle indicates the location of an old dam that broke under heavy rain, releasing tons of toxic materials into the sea.

The history of ore mining in Halkidiki over the past 30 years is one that is fraught with scandals, violence and environmental disasters. The region where all this is taking place consists of 16 coastal and mountain villages and of mountains and forests where ore mining goes back to the earliest times of Greek history. It is said that Philip of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great, exploited the mines of Halkidiki for their gold and copper. The villages were collectively known as Siderocausia, the “metal-burners” in Byzantine times, and later as the Mademochoria, from the Turkish word for mine, in Ottoman times. In the 20th century, the mining rights to the area were taken over by Greek businessman Bodossakis, who made the first steps towards industrial-level exploitation. He established a factory in the village of Stratoni and even built more than three hundred houses there for the workers. By the late 1980s, Bodossakis’s business empire was crumbling, and the mining rights were bought by a first Canadian company, TVX Gold.

TVX had ambitious plans for Halkidiki, and if Bodossakis had taken the first steps towards industrial exploitation, TVX was intending to take mining activites in the area to a scale previously unheard of in Greece. The Greek political class was cheering and emphasizing the development that TVX would bring to the region and to the country, but local people were not convinced so easily. They asked for advice from universities and research centres, and the answer they got was clear: if TVX were allowed to have it their way, the local people would have to abandon their region, which would be destroyed forever by pollution of the soil, sea, air and water.

From 1997 to 2003, the people of north-eastern Halkidiki were in a daily struggle to prevent TVX Gold from implementing its projects. They petitioned ministries, they held rallies, they established a protest camp on the intended mining site and, when things turned really sour, they took their hunting rifles and started taking out the tires of vehicles that were transporting riot police to their villages. The tiny village of Olympiada found itself under martial law for 9 days for resisting the plans of the company. But, little by little, and despite the support of the Greek government, the company started giving up. In 2003, TVX Hellas, the Greek subsidiary of TVX Gold, filed for bankruptcy, and the people of north-eastern Halkidiki thought that they could have their region back.

But the powers that be did not let that happen. In early December 2003, an associate of Greek business magnate Bobolas founded a new company called Hellas Gold, with a starting capital of €60,000. A few days later, the Greek State purchased the mining rights from TVX for €11 million, and, half an hour later, sold them to Hellas Gold for another €11 million. The fact that a company with a capital of 60,000 was able to purchase something for eleven million, and that the State, essentially, earned zero from this transaction, is enough in and of itself to show the shady nature of this deal. Furthermore, some interesting clauses were included in the concession contract, for example that the State does not receive any royalties from the mining company, and that the company will not be held accountable for any accidents that may happen, allegedly because they could be due to previous mining activities. Such clauses do make one wonder if Alexander the Great should be held responsible for any environmental disaster that may happen in Halkidiki.

In the following months, Hellas Gold started selling shares, and was purchased at 95% by another Canadian company, European Goldfields, which was in turn absorbed in a friendly takeover by yet another Canadian company, Eldorado Gold. And, all of a sudden, a little corner of Greece, 317 square kilometres, smaller than the city of Montreal, found itself to be a small colony of Canadian mining interests.

The people of north-eastern Halkidiki were not happy with this shady transaction – even less so when they found out what the project proposed by Hellas Gold was on an even more massive scale than TVX. Hellas Gold and its parent company Eldorado intend to establish an open-pit mine in the middle of the Skouries forest on the Kakavos mountain, which happens to be the main freshwater source for the entire region. By the company’s own estimates, the open pit will generate three thousand tons of toxic dust per hour. They then intend to dig galleries more than 700m down into the mountain, taking the mine below sea level, meaning that any water that is not contaminated with heavy metals and other toxic materials from the mine will be contaminated by seawater. They further intend to dig a 9km long tunnel from Mavres Petres to Olympiada in order to connect two mining sites to each other, along a geological fault line that brought a devastating earthquake to the area in 1932. And they intend to build an ore processing factory in the mountain, claiming that they will separate gold from other substances without using cyanide, even though, despite all their claims, such a method has never been proven to work on the type of ore found in Skouries.

The Skouries forest, before and after mining activities began.

The people of Halkidiki sought once again advice from independent scientific institutions in northern Greece, such as the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and the Technical Chamber of Greece, and the response they received was, once again, clear: should this mining project move ahead, the consequences would be incalculable. So they started, again, petitioning the authorities and holding peaceful protests. By mid-March 2012, things started turning ugly when the mining company sent its workers up the mountain to dismantle the protest camp established by anti-mining activists on the planned mining site. The protests – peaceful protests – that followed were violently repressed by the riot police. The situation kept escalating until, on 17 February, a group of reportedly 40 to 50 people from the region conducted an arson attack on the main worksite of the company in Skouries, burning every piece of equipment they found there before they pulled out. The reaction of the authorities has been extremely fierce, detaining hundreds of people for questioning and even conducting a violent police raid on the village of Ierissos, which included, among other acts of brutality, the throwing of tear gas in the courtyard of the local school according to multiple eyewitnesses. The abuse endured by residents and detainees at the hands of the Hellenic Police was extensively documented by journalist Dina Daskalopoulou for the Greek newspaper Εφημερίδα των Συντακτών (the Editors’ Newspaper; you can read Dina’s articles in Greek here or listen to an interview in English here.)

The methods of the police and the prosecution in establishing the charges against those 14 residents of the area who were finally indicted leave much to be desired. As reported by Sakis Apostolakis for the newspaper Ελευθεροτυπία (Eleftherotypia), one key element of so-called evidence was phone calls – not transcripts of the calls themselves, but the fact that a scan of mobile phone antennas showed that the defendants were present in a specific location at a specific moment in time. In the case of 5 individuals, for instance, this location is none other than their home village of Ierissos. A sixth defendant was found to be in Gomati. When asked why he was there, the only answer he could give was: “Because I live there!” The fact that he was in his home village and spoke on the phone with one of the five residents of Ierissos – apparently a highly suspicious action – was deemed sufficient by the police to accuse him formally of participating, one way or another, in the arson attack.

The Karatzas affair

On 12 May 2013, clashes took place in the basin of the Karatzas river, where residents were protesting peacefully against logging activities led by the mining company. According to the demonstrators, they simply asked the head of the Halkidiki police force to suspend activities until a meeting planned for the next morning between the Residents’ Committees Against Mining and the leadership of the regional police to examine the validity of operational permits held by the mining company for logging in the Karatzas area. Also invited to the meeting were the head of the municipal forestry authority and the head of the department of urban planning, who still had to reply to a denunciation of possibly illegal construction activities by the company in the Skouries forest. The police officer agreed to take it up with the regional police leadership and left. Approximately one hour later, a group of riot policemen circled the protesters and assaulted them with tear gas. At least one protester was wounded.

The police’s version of events is somewhat different, and rather confused and confusing. There were claims of up to 8 wounded policemen, of which 4 were injured by buckshots from hunting rifles. One policeman was hospitalized in Thessaloniki. According to news reports, he initially stated under oath that he was wounded by an explosive device, claiming that he heard an explosion and saw a flash, then changed his account – under oath again – to a buckshot wound, in line with the police’s press release, and attributed his initial statement to shock and confusion in the moment. Confusion indeed. This did not prevent the prosecution from drawing up charges of establishing a criminal organization against 29 residents of north-eastern Halkidiki and Thessaloniki, including Tolis Papageorgiou, who is described as their leader.

Some of the heaviest charges against Papageorgiou include:

  • Establishment and direction of a criminal organization, with aggravating circumstances for developing, procuring and holding explosive materials,
  • Moral instigation of breaking the peace, together with other individuals, some of whom had their faces covered,
  • Moral instigation of an explosion that put a person’s life at risk and may have caused damage to goods owned by a third party,
  • Moral instigation and plotting to cause serial grievous bodily harm with intent, together with the attempt to cause bodily harm,
  • Illegal carrying and use of a weapon.

The purpose of the said criminal organization, according to the police, is to disrupt ore mining activities in the Karatzas river basin and in the Skouries forest and to harm the national interest. Evidence provided against Papageorgiou and his co-defendants in the 4000+ page indictment file includes detailed transcripts of phone calls obtained by wiretapping, among which one can find such incriminating discussions as interviews they gave to Reuters, the Athens News Agency, newspapers Το Ποντίκι (To Pontiki), Καθημερινή (Kathimerini), and Δημοκρατία (Democracy), television stations Antenna and ΕRΤ3, and radio stations ΕΡΑ Κομοτηνής (Komotini public radio), Ράδιο Καβάλα (Radio Kavala) and Στούντιο (Studio). Other incriminating documents include blog posts published online at antigoldgr.org, the website of Hellenic Mining Watch, an organization of which Papageorgiou is the chairman, with the rationale that “they are consistent with the purpose of this criminal organization.”  In short, as stated word for word in the indictment file, Papageorgiou is accused of “organizing demonstrations, giving interviews, publishing texts on the issue.”

It goes without saying that Papageorgiou denies it all (he gave an extensive interview to OmniaTV on the subject, where he highlights the absurdity of the accusations), but the charges against him and his 28 co-defendants are grave, and it is very possible that they may be deemed dangerous enough by the court to be placed in remand – after all, two residents of Ierissos were remanded over the arson attack on the Skouries worksite, only to be released six months later for lack of evidence as the case against them collapsed.

The legal proceedings beginning today with a preliminary investigation are thus a watershed moment in the struggle against mining in Halkidiki, but also in the history of the modern Greek judiciary: if the police, the mining company and their supporters in the government have their way, an entire local community, which has struggled peacefully against the destruction of their region for decades, may be branded a criminal organization.

Update 07 July 2014, 8 pm (via OmniaTV)

The 6 defendants who met the investigating magistrate today walked free until their upcoming trial with the following conditions. 10 more are due to be interrogated tomorrow. 

    • Tolis Papageorgiou may not leave the country and must report to the police station once a month, 
    • The other 5 are forbidden from coming within 4km of the Skouries forest (which means that they cannot enter the villages of Megali Panagia and Neochori) and from coming within 10m (32ft) of employees of Eldorado Gold (with the consequences one can easily imagine should one false accusation be formulated against them.) 

Update 8 July 2014, 9:30 pm (via Alterthess)

The 10 defendants who saw the investigating magistrate walked free, 9 of them with similar conditions as those interrogated yesterday and one without any conditions. 13 more are due to be interrogated tomorrow. 

Update 10 July 2014 (via Alterthess)

Of the last 13 defendants, 6 walked free without conditions while the others face similar restrictions as those imposed on the two previous days. It is now expected that the investigating magistrate will proceed with completing the indictment file and referring the case for trial.

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