Nikos Romanos was only 15 years old when his name first became known to the Greek public. Romanos was close friends with Alexandros Grigoropoulos, the unarmed pupil who was shot dead by a policeman in the Athens neighborhood of Exarheia. Romanos watched his friend die in front of his eyes after being shot through the heart.
The shooting proved to be the spark that lit a tinderbox of rage and triggered rioting in the capital and other Greek cities against police violence.
Several years later Romanos was again in the headlines although this time not as an innocent bystander. He was arrested together with a group of young men for a double robbery in Kozani. The armed burglary is said to have been perpetrated by the anarchist group “Revolutionary Organization of the Conspiracy of Fire,” although Romanos claims that, while he is an anarchist and anti-establishmentarian, he was not a member of the group.
Following the arrest of the young men pictures emerged of the young anarchists with swollen faces and black eyes. The police claim that the men suffered the injuries in scuffles as they resisted arrest, although others refute this explanation, claiming that the injuries were the result of beatings Romanos and the others suffered while in police custody. An uproar was triggered when the police released pictures of the arrestees that had been overtly doctored to conceal the extent of the bruising. The police argued at the time that the reason they had photo-shopped the pictures was to aid the identification of the suspects by the public.
Romanos was subsequently convicted of participation in the robberies although the court accepted the argument that he was not a member of the ‘Conspiracy of Fire’ group. As such he was convicted on charges of armed robbery as opposed to terrorism charges.
Nikos Romanos’s incarceration appears to have done very little to change his political views which he appears to be committed to upholding even if doing so leads to his death.
Since the 10th of November, Romanos has been on hunger strike demanding the right to be allowed to attend university.
Last spring while in prison, Romanos studied for and took the pan-Hellenic high school exams earning high enough marks to gain a place at a top Athens university in business management.
At the time, the Justice Ministry had praised his and other inmates’ academic success and was to award Romanos a prize of 500 euros. However Romanos refused to attend a ceremony to accept the prize from the Justice Minister, saying that doing so would violate his principles.
Regardless, at the time the Justice Minister Charalambos Athansiou stated that, “the state does not make distinctions on the issue of studies. He is praiseworthy for following the advice of his teachers and working hard to gain a place at an institution of higher education.”
Speaking to the inmate/students present at the ceremony, the Minister stated, “I am particularly gratified over your great success. Your efforts are worthy of envy and are a great example of how a young person can get past the bad moments in his past and open roads to new horizons. Prison, aside from its correctional aspect also has an educational aspect. The fact that at some point you lapsed into illegal actions doesn’t say anything. Anyone can commit a crime.”
However despite this praise, the door subsequently was shut on Romans’s putative academic career when the relevant prison council denied Romanos’s application for prison furlough to attend classes.
According to the law, a special magistrate must rule in favour of the prison leave. However in Romanos’s case he ruled that, given his criminal record, he posed a flight risk.
Following the denial of his prison leave Romanos launched his hunger strike, releasing a long statement reaffirming his anarchist principles and explaining his motivation.
An appeal has also been filed against the decision to deny furlough to Romanos which is to be heard by a Piraeus judicial council.
However the case has yet to be heard and with Romanos’s hunger strike entering its fourth week, there are fears that his health may be imminently irreversibly damaged.
According to Romanos’s lawyer, Fragkiskos Ragkousis, Romanos has never gotten over the murder of Grigoropoulos and is now fighting for his life. Ragkousis says that Romanos has lost 17 kilos (over 35 pounds) and with a heart rate of 170 bpm, unless there is a change, cardiac arrest is considered ‘expected.’
The case has highlighted contradictions within the penal system which on the one hand recognizes prisoner rights to self-improvement in theory, and at the same time denies them in practice.
Many argue that Nikos Romanos’s political beliefs should not be grounds for his rights to education be denied. In an announcement the Human Rights department of the junior coalition partner PASOK writes, “Nikos Romanos must be allowed to exercise all of the rights which are provided for by the law. Democracy does not seek revenge even on its sworn enemies.”
The timing could not be worse for the government. With the anniversary of Grigropoulos’s death looming, should the unthinkable happen to Romanos in the coming days, it may well prove a trigger for new waves of unrest throughout Greece with unpredictable consequences.