Greek court convicts 15 in killings

November 17 terrorism covered almost 3 decades

December 09, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ATHENS, Greece - In a landmark ruling that Greece hopes will allay fears of violence before next summer's Olympic Games, a Greek court found 15 members of a radical group guilty yesterday of a string of assassinations, car bombings and rocket attacks that stretched over nearly three decades.

Among those convicted were one of the founders, as well as the chief assassin, of the group known as November 17. After its first killing, of a CIA station chief in Athens in 1975, the leftist gang waged a hit-and-run terror campaign believed to have claimed 23 victims, including a Greek shipping magnate, a British brigadier and three other American officials.

The verdicts, delivered by a judge here in rapid-fire style without commentary, brought an abrupt close to a trial that had riveted Greece for nine months, with nearly 500 witnesses, 10,000 pages of evidence and a carnival atmosphere that threatened at times to spiral into chaos.

The court acquitted four defendants, including the only woman, who is married to the suspected hit man, Dimitris Koufodinas. He and the others are expected to be sentenced by early next week. Several face life in prison; their lawyers said they planned to appeal.

Dubbed the "trial of all trials" by Greek newspapers, the case against November 17 was rich in spectacle and symbolism. In the end, though, it was less revelatory than many would have liked. Much about the group, and why it was able to act with impunity for 27 years, remains cloaked in mystery.

"We may never get answers to some questions," said Alexandros Lykourezos, a conservative member of the Greek Parliament and a lawyer who represents the relatives of some of the victims. "Why it took so long for the Greek state to catch them is something the court did not touch."

Still, the verdicts were historic - closing a blood-stained chapter in Greece's history that began after the collapse of the military junta, which ruled the country from 1967 to 1974. The group's name derives from the date in 1973 when that regime brutally quashed a student protest.

The last assassination attributed to the militants came on June 8, 2000, when the British military attache, Brig. Stephen Saunders, was gunned down on his way to work. His widow, Heather, campaigned tirelessly for justice, helping to galvanize Greek public opinion against the group.

Greece prosecuted the November 17 suspects under a new antiterrorism law, using a panel of three judges instead of a jury to avoid intimidation.

Officials here viewed the case as a crucial house-cleaning on the eve of 2004, when the Olympics return to their ancestral land.

"Greece can boast of being one of the safest countries in the world, which is important due to the Olympics," said Christos Protopapas, the minister of press, after the verdicts were handed down.

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