The outrageous story of Tassos Theophilou

Tassos Theophilou was charged in 2012 with terrorism, robbery and murder. In 2014, he was given a twenty-five year prison sentence. His conviction was overturned on appeal, and he was freed in June 2017. Now, having spent less than a year as free man, he faces prison once again: a state prosecutor has decided to appeal the acquittal and has petitioned the Greek Supreme Court for a retrial. Should the Supreme Court side with the prosecutor, Theophilou will be sent back to prison to await another trial by the Court of Appeals.

By Mariniki Alevizopoulou and Augustine Zenakos

 

Tassos Theophilou being transferred to the prosecutor, August 2012.

We meet up with Tassos in a side-street café in downtown Athens. It is the first time we meet face to face, though we have interviewed and corresponded with him in the past.

His calm and warm demeanour could hardly be more at odds with the fact that he has spent the greatest part of the last six years in prison. He was arrested in August 2012 and charged with terrorism, robbery and murder. In 2014, he was given a long prison sentence. His conviction was overturned on appeal, and he was freed in June 2017.

Now, having spent less than a year as free man, he faces prison once again: a state prosecutor has decided to appeal the acquittal and has petitioned the Greek Supreme Court for a retrial. Should the Supreme Court side with the prosecutor, Theophilou will be sent back to prison to await another trial by the Court of Appeals.

For someone who has never stopped protesting his innocence, Tassos appears to face the possibility of going back to prison with a lot less indignation than might seem appropriate to a sympathetic observer. Yet, it is impossible to step into his shoes. Five years in prison is for most of us an unfathomable torment. Bearing in mind what he has been through, keeping calm and holding one’s own is perhaps a survival reflex learnt in the hardest way.

“I don’t have much to say about it,” he tells us. “I try to be optimistic.”

The beginning

On August 10th 2012, there was an armed robbery in the Alpha Bank branch in Naoussa, a town in the Aegean island of Paros. Four people wearing hats and dark glasses managed to get away with sixty thousand euros. As they were exiting the bank, they were confronted by a man who tried to stop them. The man, 53 year-old Dimitris Michas, a cab-driver, was shot dead. The robbers got away in a car, which they soon after torched.

The Alpha Bank branch in Naoussa, Paros

In cases of serious crimes, the authorities are usually quick to make public statements, but also to give information to reporters, particularly crime reporters who have maintain steady communications with the police, in order to reassure the public that investigations are proceeding in the way that they should. So it was in this case, and almost immediately there were media reports on the progress of the investigation.

The police, it was announced, connected the getaway car to an incident that had happened a few months earlier in Elliniko, a municipality in the southern Athens metropolitan area. Two young men of Albanian descent attempted to steal a car in the garage of a large department store. They fled the scene in two cars, one of them in the car they had just stolen, the other one in the car they had arrived in, a black Opel Corsa with tinted windows. Police emergency units managed to chase down and arrest the driver of the stolen car, but the man in the Opel Corsa managed to escape.

The police now believed that it was the same Opel Corsa that was used in the Paros bank robbery and later torched.

According to media reports that cited police sources, and were never denied, the man arrested in the stolen car was being questioned about his escaped accessory, whom the police now connected to the Paros robbery. Although the arrested man refused to cooperate, it was reported that the authorities had gathered critical evidence on the gang that was responsible for the crime.

Another significant piece of evidence the police were examining, according to the torrent of reports and announcements in those days, was a mobile phone that one of the robbers apparently had dropped during the escape. It was reported that the police already had requested the release of data from telecom companies, and were in the process of analysing the phone’s SIM card, which was supposed to reveal valuable clues. Then, six news-loaded days after the robbery, suddenly no more information was forthcoming from the police.

Two days later, some media reported that the counter-terrorism unit had arrested a young man, an anarchist named Tassos Theophilou. He was charged with participation in a terrorist organisation, murder and robbery, among other lesser charges. The prosecutor ordered his pre-trial incarceration.

The media

The frantic pace of reporting resumed; only there were suddenly no more mentions of the Albanian gang, of the black Opel Corsa, or of the mobile phone that was dropped at the scene. Instead, it was reported that the counter-terrorist unit located and arrested Theophilou, thanks to an anonymous phone call it received. According to the unknown caller, “a certain Tassos with blue eyes took part in the Paros robbery and he is also a member of the Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire”.

The Conspiracy of Cells of Fire, or SPF (“Synomosia Pyrinon tis Fotias” in Greek), is an anarchist urban guerrilla organisation, responsible for numerous bomb attacks against various targets, including Greek and foreign politicians, European officials, banks and businesses, as well as the offices of the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn. The attacks have caused material damages, with no fatalities. Since its appearance in 2008, several of its self-confessed members have been arrested and convicted to long prison sentences, while other persons who have been accused but have denied their connection to the group have been variously convicted or acquitted.

The media asked no questions and no explanation was ever given why the initial line of investigation on the Paros robbery and murder was quietly dropped by the police, or why the counter-terrorist unit got involved in what appeared to be a common crime, with no ideological motivation. SPF, who routinely issue proclamations assuming responsibility and offering ideological reasons for their attacks, never claimed that the Paros robbery was their doing.

A few of the front-pages that followed Theophilou’s arrest. Some of the headlines read: “Shocking revelations by the 29 year-old accused for the murder of Taxi-driver”; “He had announced the Paros robbery on Facebook!”; “Blood and money for terrorism”; “They robbed to finance new round of urban guerrilla war”; “The killer of Paros is caught”; “Big fish of terrorism”; “He belongs to the Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire”.

Tassos Theophilou was immediately stigmatised in the media as a “terrorist”, a bank-robber, and the killer of the unfortunate taxi-driver, Dimitris Michas. Newspapers, websites and TV news shows begun to obsessively cover his arrest, offering to the public a near-continuous stream of information, which ostensibly was derived from police sources. Among the claims made by the media was that Theophilou’s DNA was found in an “SPF hideout”. Also that “tough” Theophilou, as he was labelled, had a “relationship” with a different urban guerrilla group, called “Sect of Revolutionaries”, which had committed homicides, and that he had been involved in the recent murder of journalist Socratis Giolias, the responsibility for which had been claimed by the “Sect”. None of these stories were ever corroborated, and were never part of any police report, but were widely circulated.

The evidence

The flimsiness of the evidence produced by the counter-terrorism unit and the prosecuting authorities, when Theophilou’s case was heard in court in 2014, stood in dark contrast to the certainties that had been claimed by the media.

The first piece of evidence was the anonymous phone call. Although the counter-terrorism unit could not identify the caller, the court accepted this as credible testimony. When questioned by the defence on why the police did not trace the origin of the call, the officer who was testifying replied that the unit did not have a caller identification system at its disposal. Strange as that sounded, given that the counter-terrorism unit is supposed to possess some high-end surveillance technology, the court seemed to find it reasonable.

In any case, Tassos believes that the whole phone call discussion was misleading. “The truth is,” he told us in an interview we did while he was in prison, “that my prosecution was not based on any anonymous phone call. That’s just a way for the counter-terrorism unit to kick off its story. Many case files begin like this. In reality, it is a convention between the unit and the judges, so that the police are not made to expose the way that they collect their information. There was no anonymous phone call.”

The second piece of evidence was a cowboy hat, that –according to the police– Theophilou was allegedly wearing during the robbery, and dropped during his escape. The police claimed it had discovered Theophilou’s DNA on it.

Strangely, this hat had never been mentioned in the initial announcements, when the focus was on the black Opel Corsa and the mobile phone – both items that were never mentioned in court. Moreover, when the police produced the hat, it could not explain why there no photograph of it at the scene, although everything found there was meticulously documented. Although, according to police documentation, the counter-terrorist unit appears to have taken custody of the hat two days after the robbery, there is no record of it before then. No one bothers to explain where exactly the hat was found, who collected it, where they delivered it to, or where it was placed for two days.

Anny Paparroussou, a member of Theophilou’s defence team, has spoken to us on many occasions about the problems of DNA evidence, particularly in the ways it is handled by the Greek police and judicial authorities. “With DNA or fingerprints,” she says, “there is a tendency to consider them significant evidence of proof, whereas in reality they are rather weak. They must always be considered in combination with an assessment of some other behaviour, they must be examined in parallel with other evidence”.

Theophilou being transferred to court, during his trial.

“It is strange” Theophilou told us, “that this hat is not immediately sent to the Forensic Investigations Directorate for examination, in order to determine if there is genetic material or fingerprints on it. For some reason, it remains in the hands of some unspecified police authority without being examined. The counter-terrorism unit waits until they arrest me, eight days after the robbery, and only then orders the hat to be examined, in the same lab and at the same time as the genetic material they had violently taken from me.”

What is more, an eyewitness in court pointed out several differences between the hat produced by the police and the one that a robber appeared to be wearing in the bank’s surveillance video. Two independent forensic experts, in turn, testified that DNA on a mobile object couldn’t be taken to conclusively prove that the owner of the DNA has come in contact with that object. The experts were so insistent that the presiding judge at one point exclaimed: “We understand, Theophilou may have never worn this hat.”

The third piece of evidence was Theophilou’s alleged friendly relations with persons that have been accused as participants in Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire, and other anarchists. This was the “evidence” that the terrorism charge was based on.

It is important to point out that this type of charge is only made possible through the provisions of special anti-terrorist legislation. Article 187A of the penal code, enacted in 2004, makes “participation in a terrorist organisation” a stand-alone offence. This means that the offence does not require the person so charged to also have committed any of the crimes that are attributed to the “organisation”. Therefore, if a court is convinced that an “organisation” is responsible for a crime or for planning a crime, and that a certain person is a “member” of the “organisation”, this person will be found guilty of the offence of “participation”. In fact, no specific relationship of any kind has to be shown to exist to any action attributable to the organisation. This is a law that goes far beyond known and well-defined concepts in criminal jurisprudence, such as the offences of criminal conspiracy, inciting a crime or being an accessory, and introduces a vague concept of “participation” that allows courts to severely punish people who have not committed any other offence. Unsurprisingly, this issue has drawn very heavy criticism, as many have pointed out that article 187A essentially allowed the courts an unprecedented margin regarding the grounds on which they could decide on a conviction.

In the case of Theophilou, there was no attempt to establish his participation or even his knowledge about any of the actions attributed to SPF. At the same time, no evidence was presented at court that SPF was involved in the Paros robbery. The reasoning of the prosecution seemed to go something like this: since Theophilou is an anarchist and knew some people accused as members of SPF, it follows that he is a member of the group. And since he is a member, then SPF executed the robbery. Therefore, this is not just a common robbery and murder, but a terrorist attack that falls within the purview of anti-terrorist legislation.

The fourth piece of evidence presented at Theophilou’s trial was his writing. The media had, immediately after his arrest, picked up on the neo-noir stories he wrote in his blog, and there were articles published that said his crime stories showed his murderous and terrorist disposition. But this line of thought was also followed in court, with the prosecution alleging that the crime stories were indicative of Theophilou’s “profile”.

And this sums up the evidence presented by the prosecution. At a rather characteristic moment in the trial, under questioning from the defence, an officer of the counter-terrorism unit finally admitted: “I don’t know, maybe the man was not at the robbery.”

The verdict

Not a single eyewitness identified Theophilou as being at the scene of the crime. In addition, witnesses testified that on the day of the robbery he was in Athens, doing voluntary work at a refugee centre. The prosecution, however, attacked this testimony on the grounds that these witnesses had not come forward during the interrogation stage, and were therefore not credible.

“The prosecution was saying,” Theophilou told us, “that I should have presented the evidence that could clear me when the case was still in the hands of the police – as if it were not enough that I was being accused without evidence. That I should not have waited for the trial, where the publicity provides at least some safety for the witnesses against police pressure. Also, it is really problematic to expect the defendant to produce an alibi, when there is no evidence of guilt. This is an effort by police and judicial circles to shift the burden of proof from the prosecution onto the accused.”

The court cleared Theophilou of the terrorism charges, but it convicted him as a robber and an accessory to murder. The sentence was twenty-five years in prison.

A demonstration in support of Theophilou. The banner reads: “Freedom to Tassos Theophilou – Organisation and struggle for anarchy and communism”.

In our previous correspondence, Tassos said that his writing helped him quite a lot to deal with what was an unjust sentence imposed on an innocent person. His “Prison Stories”, which regularly appeared on Facebook, were fictional reworkings of actual things he learned about his fellow inmates. At times darkly funny and at times deeply depressing, they became very popular.

“I always felt curious to know,” he told us, “how the prison world works. What I like to do, writing, I can do in prison, which offers me some great material. I imagine that if I were a photographer, I’d have a big problem.”

“Penal justice in Greece,” he went on, “is structured on the basis of a medieval wisdom: one goes to jail not knowing how long they are going to stay there. Initially, they wait for their trial, hoping to get acquitted or at least to receive a sentence proportionate to their offence – though experience says that most people have to wait for appeal to be vindicated. Then, they wait for their appeal to come to trial, after a year and a half, or maybe even two and half years. So, time in prison is divided into stages of hope.”

“Of course,” he added, “prison is the foundation and at the same time the backstage of the political and economic system, the place where the real cesspool is revealed in all its glory. So, for an anarchist it is also and important field of struggle.”

The anarchist movement, despite all its divisions and conflicting fractions, showed exemplary solidarity to Theophilou. People wrote articles, and organised talks, demonstrations and fundraising concerts. They did not forget him.

The appeal

Theophilou’s defence naturally appealed the verdict. But so did the state prosecutor, which meant that Theophilou had to be tried again on all charges, including terrorism and murder, for which he had been acquitted.

Before the trial, he made the following statement from prison: “I am not innocent. In the class war I chose the side of the wronged and the oppressed, the excluded and the hunted, the guilty and the wretched. I am a politically organised anarchist with the admittedly grandiose aim to strike at the social, political and economic structures of capital and its state. But I have denied, I do deny, and I will deny again the acts that are attributed to me. I have never been a member of SPF, I did not take part in this robbery, and above all I did not kill and I couldn’t ever for any reason and under any circumstances have killed an unarmed citizen.”

Theophilou’s trial on appeal was held in summer 2017. His defence dutifully, though perhaps even more thoroughly, went through the same motions, explaining why none of what the prosecution offered could reasonably lead to a guilty verdict. The substance of the case was exactly the same: no evidence tying Theophilou to either terrorism or the robbery, no explanation where the infamous hat came from, no identification from eyewitnesses. Instead, witnesses testified again that Theophilou was in Athens on the day of the robbery.

In his testimony before the court, Theophilou denied the charges once again.

“For one more time,” he said to his judges, “let me tell you that I have been no part either of SPF or of the Paros robbery. The first and only time I came close to a gun was during my arrest, when they put one to my head.”

“I have not committed the offences for which I am accused,” he added. “But I have committed the offence that includes all offences. I am an anarchist”.

The prosecutor argued for Theophilou’s conviction on all charges. The court acquitted him.

The media reported on his acquittal, though with nothing like the same fervour they had showed about his arrest. Later that day, July 7th 2017, he was released after five years in prison.

Tomorrow

With almost a year gone by, Tassos Theophilou is still writing, and several of his books have been published. Since his release, he has also been working as a journalist specialising in –what else?– judicial issues.

Sitting with him, we try to imagine what it would be like to be in such a position. Vindicated after all this time, having just had a taste of life as a free person, with the beginnings of meaningful work, and suddenly facing the possibility that someone might succeed in taking our lives away – again.

But it is impossible, of course. At least while our luck lasts, and some policeman in a desk somewhere doesn’t decide, for reasons unknown to us, to “solve” one of his cases by hanging us out to dry. It does seem far-fetched. But so it did for Tassos before 2012. And for many others.

Maybe the prosecutor, Ioannis Aggelis, who now asks that Theophilou be retried on all charges does have a “personal obsession”, but it seems that it is also embedded in a political belief: his run-ins with anarchists date at least back to the mid-1990s, when he was one of the prosecutors supervising a series of “collective” trials, famous for their disregard for civil rights. He has also served as a prosecutor assigned to the counter-terrorist unit, before being promoted to prosecutor for the Supreme Court.

The case of Tassos Theophilou went to the Supreme Court on May 11th. A decision is expected in the following months.

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