Militants of November 17 group receive life terms in Greek court

Deadly terror organization eluded police for decades

victims' kin cry whitewash


ATHENS, Greece - A Greek court sentenced the leader, chief hit man and four other members of the November 17 organization to multiple life sentences yesterday for spearheading a string of killings, rocket attacks, bombings and bank robberies since 1975.

Closing a nine-month trial in a bunker-like prison courtroom, a court sentenced Alexandros Yiotopoulos, 59, a Paris-born academic who acted as the group's spiritual leader, to 21 life terms.

Dimitris Koufodinas received 13 life terms for gunning down several of the group's 23 victims, including Britain's top military official in Greece, Brig. Stephen Saunders, three years ago. Four others received sentences ranging from one to 10 life terms.

The sentences were handed down a week after a public prosecutor asked for no mercy for the convicted militants, branding November 17 "a fascist grouping with Stalinist traits and military tactics."

Named after the date of the 1973 student uprising that led to the collapse of a brutal dictatorship that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974, November 17 ranked among the most mysterious militant groups, eluding authorities for nearly three decades.

Long before the appearance of al-Qaida, the self-acclaimed Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries ranked among the United States' most wanted for targeting American companies and killing four U.S. officials, including the CIA's station chief in Athens, Richard Welch, in 1975.

Now, nearly three decades later and months before the 2004 Olympic Games here, Greek officials hope the sentences will allay security concerns and international criticism that Greece is doing too little to combat local militants.

Yiotopoulos, a debonair former Trotskyite, repeatedly denied involvement in the group, though authorities found his fingerprints in a November 17 hideout last year. He dismissed the trial as "a joke."

But one of those sentenced yesterday, Savva Xeros, expressed regret "for every tear, for every cry, for all the mourning I have caused."

Relatives of victims criticized the proceedings, calling them a whitewash and expressing doubts that the group, which taunted authorities for years, had been wiped out.

"After 27 years, the least one would expect to hear is why this group operated for so long without a single arrest," said Tim Welch, son of the slain CIA station chief, who flew to Athens with his siblings Mollie and Nick to witness the sentencings.

Welch and other victims' relatives have long accused Greece's succession of socialist governments of tolerating November 17.

Welch said victims' relatives have consulted with the U.S. Justice Department in the hope of winning extradition of the militants. Greece has refused to consider such a request.

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