Fifty years have now passed since the military takeover in Athens. The coup in the early morning of 21 April 1967 was indeed a shock for democrats all over Europe. How was it possible that a simple group of colonels could wipe out democracy in one of the oldest members states of Council of Europe?
The shock deepened when it became known that the Greek parliament was closed and the political parties dissolved, that strict media censorship had been introduced and that about 6 000 people, including politicians and journalists, had been taken prisoner, many of whom were tortured during interrogation.
Though the colonels were political novices and made naïve – even ridiculous – statements, they were well prepared in military terms, got to grips quickly with the state machinery and launched their systematic terror skillfully. Obviously, the Greek army and security forces had not been kept under sufficient democratic control. Their links to colleagues in the United States became gradually more obvious.
As a young member of Amnesty International, I went to Athens soon after the coup in order to collect evidence about torture. I was immediately struck by the wide spread fear in the community. To testify to a foreign human rights organization involved a serious risk.
However, testimonies did come out and an interstate complaint was submitted at the end of 1967 by governments in Scandinavia and the Netherlands to the Commission of Human Rights within the Council of Europe. The Commission concluded that the European Convention had been violated and the Greek junta decided in 1969 to leave the organization in order to avoid the embarrassment of suspension.
However, torture continued and the colonels managed to stay in power for another five years, until July 1974. There were several reasons for this, a major one being that the solidarity with the Greek democrats – though strong in several countries – was not shared by everyone. The US government gave the junta political protection and the colonel’s Greece could therefore remain member of NATO.
The Greek democrats at the time appealed to European governments to try to convince Washington to stop supporting the junta, or at least demand an end to torture, but their requests were generally met with silence.
The succeeding democratic regime in Greece reined in the military and security forces and put the colonels and some of the most notorious torturers to trial. However, there was little discussion about the fact that the international community failed to stop the junta for years.
What did we learn?