An arson attack took place on the worksite of mining company Hellas Gold in the Skouries forest in north-eastern Halkidiki in the night from 16 to 17 February 2013. An initial report, posted by the pro-mining blog “Citizen of the Aristotelis Municipality”, stated that 50 to 70 individuals wearing full-face hoods and armed with shotguns and petrol bombs entered the site shortly after midnight and set equipments and vehicles on fire. The report further claimed that the assailants immobilized the two security guards who were on the site and held them hostage after dousing them with petrol and threatening to set them on fire. The value of the shares of the majority owner of Hellas Gold, Canadian company Eldorado Gold, dropped by 6% in the Toronto stock exchange following news of the attack.
The Skouries forest is at the centre of a hot dispute between the mining company, Hellas Gold, which is owned at 95% by Canadian mining giant Eldorado Gold and at 5% by Greek public works company Hellaktor, and local communities. The company claims that a pharaonic plan for mining of gold and copper in the area will benefit the region through the creation of some 5,000 direct and indirect jobs, while local residents argue that not only the dubious terms under which mining rights were transferred to Hellas Gold mean that the Greek State will receive no financial benefits from the mining project, but also that activities planned by Hellas Gold will cause massive damage to the environment which will in turn lead to the loss of many more jobs in the existing sectors of the local economy (farming, animal husbandry, fisheries, beekeeping, food processing and tourism). The residents’ claims are supported by research conducted by various independent scientific institutions such as the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and the Technical Chamber of Macedonia. The fact that the company has the support of the government in the name of “securing foreign investments” has often resulted in extremely heavy-handed police tactics against protesting residents, for example during a demonstration on 21 October 2012. More radiobubble reporting on this issue is available on the tag Skouries (in English, French and Spanish) as well ashere, here and here (in Greek).
There was considerable confusion as to what happened exactly on the mining worksite in the night of 16 to 17 February. The claim that the security guards were taken hostage, tied up and doused with fuel spread through the media even though it was not confirmed in the press release of Eldorado Gold or the statement issued by Hellas Gold. According to Greek news website TVXS, local media reported that police officers denied that there had been a hostage situation following the attack on the site, as security guards pulled back after seeing the group of 40 or so people who were coming.  The official statement issued by the Ministry of Public Order after Minister Nikos Dendias travelled to the regional capital of Halkidiki, Polygyros, did not mention any specific events; it merely reported that the Minister said: ” First, Greece is a European State with the rule of law. Second, we all have the obligation to secure the possibility of foreign investments in this country. It is well-known that this is the only solution to face the huge and dramatic problem of unemployment. Thank you.” Security camera footage of the attack, which was released to the media, also shows no evidence of a hostage situation. All indications are therefore that the claim that guards were taken hostage and doused with fuel by the assailants does not stand, even though it was repeated ad nauseam on TV talk shows and included in the statements of security guards to the police.
The police proceeded to a first wave of random detentions in the morning of 17 February. Local residents contacted by phone told us that, of the first 27 people who were detained in the moutain villages near Skouries, some were company employees who favour the implementation of the mining project. This first group was released before another group of 4 people was detained, who were also released within hours. Things became more serious however when an arrest warrant in flagrante was issued in the night from 17 to 18 February against three prominent community members who oppose the mining project, Lazaros Toskas, Tolis Papageorgiou and Maria Kadoglou. The warrant was based on statements by the worksite’s security guards to the police, which repeated the claims that they were taken hostage and doused with petrol by the assailants. At the end of his statement, one of the guards argued that these three individuals were the moral instigators of the attack, as “all three, in posts on the internet and statements to the media, incited opponents [of the mining project] to acts of violence.” Another one argued that “Tolis Papageorgiou said in a recent speech in Komotini that he opposes mining and doesn’t care if his struggle against it results in the loss of human life, Lazaros Toskas is present in every protest against the company and Maria Kadoglou, through the web page she administrates, incites people to protest against the company.”
The police managed to locate and arrest Lazaros Toskas, who was taken to the Polygyros court for trial on 18 February (Papageorgiou and Kadoglou could not be located before the in flagrante arrest warrant ran out in the evening of 18 February.) His arrest generated an outpouring of solidarity on the internet due to the flimsiness of the charges brought against him. As a prominent member of the local chapter of opposition party SYRIZA, Toskas also had the full backing of his party, which expressed outrage at the fact that his arrest was clearly targeting the party itself. A large solidarity gathering of friends, neighbours, party members and fellow residents of Halkidiki was waiting for him outside the courthouse and broke into applause when he walked free after the trial. Upon his release, Toskas filed a counter-lawsuit against his accusers for false statements and diffamation.
The Polygyros prosecutor returned the indictment documents to the police, demanding that the investigation be continued and a stronger argument be made in order to continue pursuing the case. The case file has now been transferred from Polygyros to Thessaloniki, where an investigator has been appointed to determine if the attack on the worksite can be defined as an act of terrorism.
The assault on the Skouries worksite generated extensive coverage on Greek media on 18 February, giving the mining issue more exposure on mainstream media than it had for the several previous months. It must be noted however that evening talk shows essentially provided a platform to local and national politicians who support the mining project (in particular to the mayor of the mining region, Christos Pachtas, whom opponents accuse of being behind the dubious transaction through which the mines found themselves in the possession of Hellas Gold in 2003 when he was deputy minister of finance), while giving little air time to the grievances of local residents and to the damage the project would cause to the environment. TV talk shows also spent considerable time discussing the alleged hostage situation, despite the fact that all indications are that the allegations are false.
As of 19 February, the police is still conducting detentions of residents in the villages of Ierissos and Megali Panagia near Skouries, without however having been able to indict or arrest anyone on credible accusations. Local activists report that the police are demanding that detainees handover DNA samples and threaten them with prosecution for insubordination if they refuse to comply.
Update 20 February 2013 – 10:20am
A local resident we contacted on the phone confirmed that the police is taking DNA samples from detainees, threatening with arrest for insubordination if they fail to comply. Furthermore, there were police cars staffed with two hooded individuals outside the anti-mining coordination meeting in Ierissos yesterday, taking down the registration numbers of vehicles parked outside the meeting venue. The coordination meeting decided to hold an anti-mining demonstration in the village of Megali Panagia on Sunday 24 February.
Update 20 February – 11:45pm
A resident of Ierissos we contacted on the phone reported that hooded policemen have been conducting patrols by car and on foot in the afternoon. Furthermore, two residents of Ierissos were detained by the police and held incommunicado for 5 hours in the precinct of the regional capital Polygyros. Relatives, lawyers and the local SYRIZA MP were deliberately lied to by the police chief, who said that he had no idea on the matter. The mother of one of the detainees, who was standing outside the precinct waiting for news, saw her son through the basement window and contacted the lawyer, who confronted the police chief. When the lawyer argued that this was akin to kidnapping, the police chief answered that “it hadn’t been 48 hours yet.” The entire village of Ierissos gathered in protest outside their own precinct until they learned that the detainees had been released. The residents intend to sue all the policemen who lied about the whereabouts of the detainees.