Dimitris Koufontinas, a 63-year-old Greek political prisoner, has been on hunger strike since Jan. 8, 2021, due to his treatment in prison since the passing of a new law, which specifically targeted him because of his political actions. This law, passed by the new Greek right-wing Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of the New Democracy Party, has been condemned by several parties in the Greek parliament, Amnesty International, and more than 1,000 Greek lawyers. If Koufontinas’ conditions do not improve, it is possible that he would be the first victim of a hunger strike in Europe in the 21st century. 

Demosthenes Papathatos, a Greek political scientist and the former editor of the Red Notebook website, spoke to The Real News Network’s Eddie Conway about the case.

Koufontinas was a member of the Revolutionary Organization 17 November (17N), which was formed during the 1973 Athens Polytechnic revolt against the Regime of the Colonels, a far-right military junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974 —a revolt that was opposed by U.S. and British intelligence agencies. The group carried out actions against the Greek state, banks, and businesses for over twenty years. In 2002, leading members of 17N were arrested. Koufontinas refused to testify against other members and, instead, turned himself in and assumed responsibility for the actions of the group. 

According to Papathatos, during the 19 years that Koufontinas has been incarcerated, he has been an ideal prisoner and is widely respected for both his role in assuming responsibilities for the alleged crimes of 17N and his work from behind bars where he has written extensively, including two books. Due to his good conduct, Koufontinas was transferred to the Volos rural detention facility in 2016. This facility allowed for temporary leave, and provided much better conditions than the underground facility at Korydallos Prison, where he had been held previously. This move was strongly criticized at the time by the U.S. Embassy and Greek right-wing supporters, who wanted harsh punishment for Koufontinas because of his continued criticism of their policies. 

In December, Mistotakis and the New Democracy Party passed Law 4760/2020, which was designed specifically to prohibit Koufontinas from remaining in the Volos facility by forbidding any person convicted of terrorist crimes from participating in the rural detention facility program, or from being eligible for leave. During debate on the bill, Koufontinas was named as the reason the law was being passed, and he is currently the only prisoner in Greece to whom the law would apply. 

On Dec. 23, Koufontinas was removed from the Volos facility and transferred to Domokos prison, a new high-security prison that has been widely criticized by the legal community as dangerous. Papathatos described this transfer as a kidnapping that has greatly impacted Koufontinas’ wellbeing. 

“He was locked together with two other prisoners in suffocating small cells, and in which he spent 15 hours a day without having any space during the coronavirus, nor time to do any of his previous activities, and so on,” said Papathatos. “So, we have a [63]-year-old man who was experiencing a dramatic deterioration in his conditions, with catastrophic consequences for his personality and his mental and physical health.”

Sixty days ago, in response to these conditions, Koufontinas started his hunger strike. This is the fifth and longest hunger strike that Koufontinas has held in response to his treatment by the Greek prison authorities. He is currently in a prison hospital ward, drinking only water. Papathatos is worried that there may soon be a prosecutor’s order for forced feeding, an act that is generally considered to be torture. Currently, Koufontinas’ lawyers, and supporters who are conducting protests for his humane treatment twice a week, are demanding that he be removed from Domokos prison and transferred back to the lower security Korydallos Prison, where he spent the first 14 years of his incarceration.

Papathatos sees this case as indicative of a sharp right turn that Greece, and the European Union as a whole, are taking. While groups such as Golden Dawn, the Greek neo-Nazi political party, have mainly been abolished and the leaders imprisoned, many of the policies that they backed have been picked up by Mitsotakis and the New Democracy Party. This has included a dramatic increase in police brutality, including the use of police in Greek universities, a practice that had been banned for decades. 

Papathatos also points to the capitalist austerity crisis in Greece, where the national debt is over 200% of the GDP and over 70% of the population lives near the poverty line, as a driving force behind this move to authoritarianism. As the coronavirus pandemic led to a great number of deaths, the right wing’s populist and xenophobic rhetoric around the underfunding of the Greek National Health Service and austerity measures is gaining in popularity. 

“I think that democracy all over Europe is in danger. And unfortunately, Greece is not the exception,” Papathatos said. “From some points of view [Greece] is in the front line of this authoritarian shift of the Western world.”