Greeks seek austerity trial at The Hague

Greek pensioner argues with police at a ally in Athens on 5 April 2012 Angry demonstrations have been held in protest against the government's austerity measures

It is rare for citizens to try to take their government to court, and even more so for a Western European government to be taken to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

But that is what one group based near the Greek capital is now attempting.

And the charges are more drastic still. It is alleged that the austerity measures introduced by Greece's government constitute peacetime genocide and crimes against humanity.

Start Quote

Olga Yeritsidou (L) with her daughter, Tanya

The austerity measures deprive us of our freedom. By taking away our income and our property, we don't have access to shelter, food, health and education.”

End Quote Olga Yeritsidou (L) Anti-austerity campaigner

Behind the case are a mother and daughter - psychologists Olga and Tanya Yeritsidou.

But backing their campaign is a larger group, which meets every week in an Athens suburb. The youngest member is 19, the oldest in her late 50s.

Survival

These are not political dissidents or extremists, but ordinary middle-class Greeks - teachers, lawyers, physiotherapists; those hit hard by the government cuts and now taking to a highly unusual last resort.

"The austerity measures deprive us of our freedom", says Olga. "By taking away our income and our property, we don't have access to shelter, food, health and education."

Her daughter intervenes: "Austerity is pushing Greeks not just below the poverty line, but below the minimum needed for survival."

The two women began sending letters to the then Prime Minister, Costas Karamanlis, back in 2008, warning him of the likely consequences of public sector cuts.

When the next government took office a year later, they sent yet more correspondence. After filing a court injunction that was not taken seriously in Greece, they decided to appeal to the ICC in The Hague.

A toxic mix of austerity and recession has indeed brought Greece to its knees.

The country's economy is contracting for the fifth consecutive year, unemployment has soared to more than 20% - about 50% among the young.

Dramatic

The social impact is stark, with the number of suicides estimated to have doubled, crime rising steadily and more than a quarter of Greeks now thought to be living below the poverty line.

But while the situation is dramatic, I ask the two ladies whether they can genuinely believe that the government's policies constitute "genocide" or "crimes against humanity".

"Of course", replies Olga. "By depriving us of our income, they forbid us to marry and have children. Young people who cannot support themselves cannot marry. The suicide rate has skyrocketed.

"And a lot of our young people are obliged to migrate to other countries, with only the elderly staying here. But they too are dying because they don't have medication," she adds.

I challenge them repeatedly: "Genocide involves intent. Surely you can't be suggesting that the Greek government actually intended these consequences?"

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Of course I understand the anger people feel, but these two ladies possibly don't know exactly what the crisis is all about.”

End Quote Elena Panaritis Member of the Greek parliament

Tanya replies: "To substantiate how something is done intentionally you must show that not only did they know of the consequences but they were willing to have the consequences," she says.

"And we can prove they knew the extent, they knew the severity and not only were they completely fine with it, but they actively opposed all other solutions."

'Legally absurd'

The International Criminal Court has acknowledged receipt of the paperwork and informed the two women that it will now give due consideration to the evidence.

But whether or not the case goes further, what it does reiterate is the depth of fury here against the status quo and against a political class that many Greeks feel are responsible, through corruption and mismanagement, for bringing their country to near-collapse.

George Katrougalos, a professor of constitutional law, tells me there is little chance of the case making progress.

"It's legally absurd. There are no legal grounds on which to base a trial," he says. "But I can understand it as a human response to the crisis.

"There is now a general feeling in countries facing a financial crisis that people must pay, and in the criminal courts as well. The public are looking for someone to blame."

Anger against austerity will be at the forefront of voters' minds as Greeks face elections on 6 May.

All opinion polls suggest the main parties, the Socialist Pasok and the conservative New Democracy, will be punished by voters for pushing through the deeply unpopular cuts in the past two years.

Simplistic

But Pasok MP Elena Panaritis says it is too simplistic to blame austerity alone, and that the ICC case is flawed.

"Of course I understand the anger people feel, but these two ladies possibly don't know exactly what the crisis is all about," she says.

"They see the outcome of something that they think is the result of austerity rather than the result of an economy that has been very badly managed for decades, and of the fact that we didn't want to face the ways to correct it.

"For years, Greeks voted for these parties and these political leaders that these two ladies are complaining against."

But that argument won't wash with the group supporting this case, confident that somehow it might succeed.

"These people must be punished," says Olga Yeritsidou as her daughter rifles through the case documents, "so that it won't happen again."

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