One year after the beginning of last year’s hunger strike, Dimitris Koufontinas gave the first interview since those days to ‘The Press Project’. We publish here a translation. From our point of view, the interview marks the similarities, but also the differences between the current that Dimitris represents and those to which we feel connected, or not, as in the case of the Shining Path from Peru. However, our hearts will always be with those who are imprisoned in the dungeons of our mortal enemies. Sunzi Bingfa.
The Press Project: There has been a lot of talk about “privilege” and “special treatment.” What does “prison” mean? What does it mean to be a prisoner in the Greek prisons of today?
Dimitris Koufontinas: We have the privilege of sharing a prison cell of eleven square meters (2.5 m X 4.5 m). If you subtract the space for the toilet, beds, luggage, table and chairs, you are left with a usable space of about one meter per prisoner. Of course, a prison is inherently suffocating, but it is the far-right hatred of this government that is trying to make it as suffocating as it can possibly be. It is not just the overcrowding, as they elegantly call it, the cramming of prisoners into cramped, cold, and dirty rooms, but the systematic deterioration of conditions and the planned restriction of rights in defiance of their own laws for all prisoners. Meanwhile, politicians in particular are exempted from every law, rule and regulation.
The government’s “vision” is a prison of punishment and torture. This was clear from the beginning when they assigned the prison system to the Ministry of Police. It continued with the sweeping changes in prison administrations based on “obedience to the crown,” imposing suffocating control on all. At the same time, with targeted reports in the vilest media about the alleged “lawlessness” in prisons, about so-called “cozy punishments,” and talk of “disobedient” prisoners, they deliberately tried to create the impression that sentences should be longer and conditions in prisons should be harder.
In their hysteria, they referred to brooms as weapons (and how are the cells to be mopped?), while Nikolaou grandiloquently declared that she would “not even leave a nail clipper” in the cells (a weapon, another indication of the dangerousness of the inmates). Missing in the reports calling for harsher treatment, of course, were any references to “cuddle punishments” and “privileges” for the (few) own (imprisoned) children, as well as the introduction of immunity for bankers and golden boys. And not a word about the arbitrariness, the illegalities, the scandalous operations of the Mrs. “Secretary General for Crime Control”, which stink from afar and make the whole prison, even the guards, laugh. No word about the miserable conditions, when even the water is turned off to save money, while money remains for countless and expensive surveillance cameras. This climate reinforces the authoritarian urge of the warden and the authoritarianism of the prosecutors, defines the field of law in more and more gray areas and the rules and regulations become even more vague, whose implementation is left solely to the authority of the respective “little ruler”. The purpose that justifies all this is the “breaking” of the prisoner, that is what they mean by ” penitentiary”.
The Press Project: It has been said that rural prisons are almost empty because “no one wants to go there and work so hard.” In your case, however, the ‘rural prisons’ were also portrayed as a privilege. The same was practiced by another side of the media in relation to the convicts of ‘Golden Dawn’ who were recently transferred there. To what extent is this a privilege – apart from the tripling of the days of suspended sentences – and, more precisely, to what extent can it be turned into a privilege or a suffering condition if the administration so wishes?
Dimitris Koufontinas: A ‘prison in the countryside’ means work, but also fresh air for the prisoner. After 16 years in the cellars of Korydallos, I was reminded what field work is, what a tree is, and what the open horizon is beyond the 15 meters of the prison yard. This did not fit with the hatred of the “family” (Mitsotakis). As soon as they came to power, their first task was to set up their own prison for me on the Kassavetia farm (1). They surrounded the small house where I lived with searchlights and frightened the vagabond gang of cats. Two or three patrol cars were assigned to accompany me every day for the 40 meters that separated the house from the work area, a group of armed men was deployed throughout the day to watch me from the lookout, which provoked the derision of the inmates and the contemptuous yapping of the dogs.
The logic of the ‘rural prison’ is incompatible with the government’s far-right “reintegration” concept. A ‘proven’ facility is systematically devalued and degraded, ‘rural facilities’ are cleared of prisoners who are then crammed into the closed facilities, and existing infrastructure is made unusable. The nine thousand acres of ‘rural prisons’, many of them “prime real estate” in good locations, are being prepared to satisfy the bag logic prevalent in the staffs of Maximus SA (2) (really, this is the first time I’ve seen a government not bothered by such a characterization).
The Press Project: How do relationships with “social” prisoners develop when someone comes to prison who is already “notorious” and has a certain made-up image like you?
Dimitris Koufontinas: So-called criminal prisoners, the people “from the street”, know how to take and scan every new person who enters the prison. Especially the older ones know the political prisoners for years, they know how to distinguish the political prisoner, they recognize the distinguishing circumstance that brought him to prison, they respect him because they know that he also “counts” and “sees” them as “persons”, as it is called in prison terminology, but they also know that the political prisoner never negotiates with the “authorities”. Finally, there is a legacy of common struggles against the problems in the prisons, where the social prisoners have seen how humanness, humanity, has been recovered through this struggle. And today, as the far-right government systematically closes the pressure relief valves in both the judiciary and the penitentiary, and as the explosion comes ever closer, these struggles, I think, will again be a compass.
The Press Project: You have studied in depth the situation in Latin America, the militant, political-economic, political… Are there analogies between the treatment of the armed movements there and the treatment of the armed organization 17N in Greece? Is there a “common line”? Analogies in the way history is rewritten? And if so, to what do you attribute this?
Dimitris Koufontinas: We are separated from Latin American countries by an ocean, the Atlantic, and a sea, the Mediterranean, but we have things in common. Our countries have the same patrons, namely the United States, which considers Latin America as its own backyard and Greece as its private piece of land between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea.
But the social terrain of our countries is similarly in turmoil, and a similarly timeless current of resistance runs through them. And that is why we are also hated by the dependent oligarchies, “with the hatred of the masters for the slaves who revolt,” as Fidel Castro used to say. In a similar way, they criminalize dynamic social protests, in a similar way they enact anti-terror laws to be used against the popular movement, as against Sem Terra in Brazil (Movement of the Landless, or MST, of great importance in Brazil, d.L.) or the heroic Mapuche in Chile. In a similar way, they want to take revenge on us, they try to rewrite history and kill the memory. As in the case of Abimael Guzmán the leader of the guerrilla movement (Shining Path, d.L.) in Peru, who died in prison last October as a result of a hunger strike, and whose ashes were not even handed over to his family.
The subcontinent has always been a place of political, social and ideological experimentation for the United States (dictatorships, disappeared persons, Operation Condor, the Chicago Boys in Chile…). On the other hand, it has also always been a political, social and ideological laboratory for popular movements. Recent developments show that spaces of resistance are opening up again and that reactionary restructuring seems to be reaching insurmountable limits. As the recent elections in Chile have shown, people are resisting the onslaught of the extreme right and “Pinosetism,” and the same seems to be happening in Brazil and Colombia (where the FARC is currently reforming), (after the constant killings in the civil war by the state and the paramilitaries), while the U.S. has not dared to intervene militarily in Venezuela, as it wanted to do, knowing that by doing so it would provoke a general uprising of the population.
The Press Project: Are there analogies between the 17N and the Italian and German contexts? To what extent did the geopolitical situation of Greece determine the dynamics and goals differently compared to other European armed movements?
Dimitris Koufontinas: In principle, there is a deeper affinity between those who are “in some part of the world, in some country, where people are fighting and dying for a new world,” as the poet says. We have felt it. It showed, and we saw it through our writing – it’s no coincidence that my books were first translated into German and Italian. We had similar experiences, we became close, we were part of the same story.
However, there were also important differences. They were in the metropolises, in the centers of capitalism, in countries with a more or less consolidated structure and a colonial war past. We had to fight in a semi-peripheral, dependent country with a dominant lugb (lumpen-bourgeoisie), a country with social and political instability, with enormous class contradictions, which experienced massive popular resistance (to the Nazi, d.L.) civil war, dictatorship and informal American occupation.
This different past still weighs heavily, as can be seen in the differences in the treatment of political prisoners. In Italy and Germany (and even in Spain with the Basque demands for national liberation), political prisoners, even the most heavily accused, were treated as political prisoners, while in Greece, with an increasingly “lumpen lugb” and with the corresponding current political personnel, they are treated purely in terms of civil war. And even if military courts no longer exist today, the subordinate judiciary undertakes to implement the demand for a declaration of remorse analogous to the past, as well as that for physical extermination, when, despite an officially certified degree of disability of 98%, it is decided to remain in prison “in order not to commit the same crimes again”.
The Press Project: How much has power and mainstream journalism, almost twenty years after the disbandment, changed the image of 17N, your image and the image of other former members?
Dimitris Koufontinas: I remember that in the summer of 2002, at the height of this efforts, polls came out saying that about 24% of the population, that is, one in four Greeks, would agree with the texts of 17N. In the years that followed, including on the six furloughs I was granted (unanimously), I experienced a completely different climate in my contacts with people than what the authorities and the media wanted to portray as hysteria. The civil war discourse that evokes memories of other times, the blind hatred, the extreme vindictiveness of the ruling class, the deeply divisive discourse work against what they are actually aiming at.
The Press Project: The famous “first generation” remains an unknown chapter, a great deficit in our popular history of resistance, although even its opponents admit that it was justified and it is seen that way by a particularly important part of the population. But how can you write the history of the people with silence and ignorance? Do you think that now is the time for some people to speak out?
Dimitris Koufontinas: For my part, I have tried to stand for and with what I know, whenever I have written, in relation to the history and the individuals. Today, as important parts of this history are slowly disappearing without us knowing exactly the time and the circumstances of these people today, those who are in a position to do so should speak out. They should speak up. I understand the reasons why they don’t – there is this attitude in the movement – but let them also look at it in terms of what happened in the past years.
The Press Project: The publications of well-known lawyers about the trial against 17N clearly show how manipulated and unfair it was. At the same time, they had ensured that the trial was conducted without representatives from the population, that is, without a jury. Why did they avoid such representation of the population?
Dimitris Koufontinas: Such a trial is unfair by definition, because the law of power decides the right of struggle. After all, the trial began with the crime of Evangelismou (3) in which a man, Savvas (Xiros), was physically and mentally torn to pieces. (Analogous to the case of Hermann Feiling, RZ, who had both legs torn off in a premature explosion and went blind, and who was interrogated only 24 hours after an emergency operation, still struggling with death and under strong painkillers, for days – weeks, on and on. d.L.)
What followed was a special trial with special judges, special laws (even retroactive before they were passed) and special procedures, with those in charge organizing a huge campaign using the media to discredit the defendants and suppress their voices in order to turn people against them. I remember that when I closed my defense speech with Palamas’ lines from “The Fathers” (4), in that particular atmosphere that day, a co-defendant approached me and whispered, “That’s why they didn’t broadcast the trial.”
The Press Project: Your hunger strike (and what it sparked in the streets) was a path-breaking event during the pandemic. The movement of support was moving, dare I say overwhelming. Society questioned the existence of the rule of law in the most intense way, moved by solidarity with a man whose public image, almost 20 years later, is still the work and creation of foreign and domestic power centers. How do you see, even from this short distance, the events?
Dimitris Koufontinas: In the absolute isolation of the intensive care unit, in a semi-lethargic state, I was unable to grasp the dimensions of this movement. It took me a long time to see and understand the scale of the reactions, to recognize old and new faces in the streets, to see declarations and resolutions, the many people who had signed from all over the world. I was not able to see and feel that breath, those endless hours, those long days, with the sudden compressions and rarefactions of time, measured by the nightmarish sounds of the machines of the intensive care unit, the silent deaths in the beds next to each other, the vists of the doctors with their constant pressure, their minor and major betrayals of their ethics, the warm glimpse – the oasis of the nurse, the lethargically accepted abrupt descent with the ever slower reemergence, with the distant, quiet voice inside me saying “okay, it wasn’t the last one…. ” and the patient answer “I can take it” to the stupid question “what are you doing? ” that kept echoing in my ears.
A whole system conspired against me, an illegal law was created so that I could not stay in the ‘rural prison’ with reference to my name, illegal decisions were made and justified with lies and illegal signatures afterwards, provocative lies about my transfer to Korydallos were served to the population, a whole campaign was organized against me through the media. This whole provocation that no law applies to me but pure primitive revenge, that I am now in their hands, that they will exterminate me at will, has put me back in front of the old dilemma that I will either accept the challenge to fight or surrender without a fight.
The decision was first and foremost a matter of dignity. It was never about a simple transfer, no one saw it that way. That’s why no one asked that, while the Ministry hypocritically asked, “But does he want to die for a transfer?”, (admitting that they would let me die for the transfer issue). I said if it was to be, it would be on my terms. At least in the silence of the prison what was being plotted against me would not be lost, it would come to light. And that is exactly what happened.
So many and various politically and ideologically different people stood up for each other because they felt that what was happening affected them. That in this case it was not just the exclusion of an individual from a right, but a threat to rights in general, the harbinger of an increasingly general violation of the rules, and when a state violates the rules it has established for itself, that is already pretty close to totalitarianism.
Moreover, so many and so diverse people have reacted to the style of rule exhibited by would-be government leaders in both large and small ways, to this “we decide and we command,” to the disregard for opposition, to the vile arrogance that comes from the display of arbitrary power by a dynasty by “God’s grace” that arrogates to itself the right to command at will and demands that its subjects recognize this as its “natural right.”
There has been a change of direction that may go beyond the borders of the country. But here it is being done the Greek way. By a government whose henger core plays a strong role in the economic life of the country and at the same time has a family tradition of organizing the intertwining of economic and political power. A government that specializes in international neoliberal restructuring in its own way, with a comprehensive strategic plan. In economic terms, by forcibly returning the neoliberal agenda to its origins, the Chicago Boys, Pinochet and Thatcher, with the result that education, health, social security and the environment are completely opened to private profitability, selling off the most basic strategic public goods, leveling rights and labor relations.
Politically, the far-right doctrine of “law and order” is applied in order to be able to implement this agenda without hindrance and to fight the social protests that they believe are exacerbated by the increase of social inequalities, the advancement of poverty and the collapse of the public health system. And ideologically, so that neoliberal ideas can prevail. Arrogance, impudence, historical and social ignorance of a palatial hothouse generation that thinks it can finish the “flawed ideas” and “outdated slogans” of the left, eliminate militant memories and experiences, and imagine that it can get away with class struggle from above.
In this context, the hunger strike and the related movement opened a dialogue with society. A dialogue that was initially short-lived, since the media, the ideological warfare media tank imposed the omertà of silence, while the tank of repression imposed the iron heel of the law and order doctrine on society. But as time went on, this struggle reached other dimensions. The repression led to a mass movement. Different spaces and movements met in the streets, the solidarity movement met the student movement, the protest against the murderous management of the pandemic, different demands were united on the same social basis, as a common response to a global strategic plan of the government. Symbolically, too, the center of the protest shifted from Propylea to Syntagma Square. Something different was born.
The Press Project: These same power centers then took up the fight again to divide, slander, and even cynically call for your death. They even portrayed your decision to listen to us and live as your “defeat”.
Dimitris Koufontinas: As old Marx wrote in a letter to Kugelmann, “it would be much easier to wage a struggle only on the assumption that there are unfailingly favorable prospects for success.” Well, on the morning of January 8, when I launched the strike and my last memory of food was the delicious food Jannis gave me on his birthday the day before, the prospects were anything but favorable. It has been the general conditions of the repressive counterattack, it has been the “family”, it has been the particular conditions of the whole local system (prison, prosecutor’s office, hospital) that left no room for hope.
The pressure was suffocating. The dozens of calls every day and every hour, especially from the prosecutor’s office and the General Secretariat for Crime Control, to everyone involved in the case, from the hospital administrator to the guards loitering in the hallway in boots, uniform and full gear, or standing awkwardly in the ward of the strictly sterile intensive care unit. And so they got into grotesque situations. I remember one day when a uniformed man, without any precautions, entered the intensive care unit to deliver, without any scruples, the prosecutor’s final order to secretly give me a medicine to an astonished nurse who mistook him for a doctor, or the security guard who, like in old Greek movies, jumped up to call the prosecutor and confirmed in a nervous tone: “Yes, Mrs. Prosecutor, and I don’t understand how the average Greek can assist a terrorist”!
And the more days passed, the stronger the pressure became. The resistance of the doctors was put to the test, although some of them had declared from the beginning that they would not violate the laws of the state (and their own rules of professional conduct). As my strength left me and my body cannibalized what was left of it, flipping one switch after another, I traveled in my mind to my favorite places, saying goodbye to loved ones one by one, I whispered my last words to my son, who was also on an informal and unarranged hunger strike, and then, in the semi-darkness of the ICU, quietly greeted the lost relatives who came and waited in silence. I felt like I was about to cross over to the other side.
It was a battle that was not won in its cause. But I believe it was won elsewhere. It brought to light and clarified in full the organized lawlessness of the government aimed at a single person, its personal target, it humiliated its instigators, it shook the system and left behind material for other struggles, and I think that was important. A state took on a dying man and used all the means at its disposal to defeat him. The magnitude of the conflict was evident in the triumphant applause of the prime minister, who congratulated himself on the state’s brilliant victory over a half-dead hunger striker.Dimitris Koufontinas
But they didn’t want to let me die. At some point it was clear to me that they were going to take away the ultimate right of a hunger strike, the right to “walk away.” The doctor holding the tubes menacingly over me, waiting to intubate me, was only a minor confirmation. The system could not handle a death. It was, however, able to handle a severe, unbearable, irreparable injury with cheer. And the spectrum of the irreparable meant that I would burden my people with a cripple and the movement with a symbol-a vegetal body. The burden of the decision was mine alone.
Was it a defeat to call off the strike? Would a vegetal body or even death be a victory? It was a battle that was not won in its cause. But I believe it was won elsewhere. It brought to light and clarified in full the organized lawlessness of the government aimed at a single person, its personal target, it humiliated its instigators, it shook the system and left behing material for other struggles, and I think that was important. A state took on a dying man and used all the means at its disposal to defeat him. The magnitude of the conflict was evident in the triumphant applause of the prime minister, who congratulated himself on the state’s brilliant victory over a half-dead hunger striker (as well as in the comments of the few “progressives” who muted his joy and gleefully celebrated the retreat from a battle they would never dare to fight).
The Press Project: What is your current state of health, what do the specialists say?
Dimitris Koufontinas: After 65 days on hunger strike, I was, as they said, a bag full of bones. After months of rehabilitation, which itself is another story of underlying hostility and vindictiveness, the situation is now as expected. Something has been saved, something has been lost. Something has been recovered, something will not be recovered. So it is, we do not complain, because “what has not come, do not weep over it, for what you had and did not give, weep” (5), I remain a political prisoner and all the means of struggle available to a political prisoner always remain valid.
The Press Project: Since the Civil War, the United States has treated Greece as a “space” where interests must be enforced at all costs. Its message is involved in issues that often go unnoticed, such as university asylum (after the Wikileaks revelations) or the issue of political prisoners’ rights. At the same time, the transformation of the country into a base for NATO wars continues. How far can submission to their plans take Greece?
Dimitris Koufontinas: Despite the important role that the EU plays in defining the developments in our country, it has not ceased to be an informal protectorate of the U.S. since 1947, and its political personnel behave like the personnel of a banana republic, identifying their personal interests with the interests of the U.S. and subordinating the interests of the country to the strategic plans of the U.S.
We didn’t need the Wikileaks revelations to know that the Embassy is the essential decision-making center, but we have once again seen confirmed the laziness of the country’s political and intellectual kings, huddled in the Ambassador’s offices, begging for their futures, supporting each other and chumming up to each other. There are other American-dominated governments in the world, but ours is a worthy competitor. Especially the current one: it surpasses all previous ones with its total commitment to the most dangerous war games of the US (and Israel, to which it cedes military bases).
It is not only the Minister of Defense who swore the oath of office with the civil war slogan “General, look at your army” so that the Greek army, just as it bled for the US in the past, will continue to bleed today. These are not the words of a graphic right-wing extremist, because the ‘respectable’ Foreign Minister also stated that we are actively participating in the US campaign against Russia with our military bases (from Alexandroupolis to Aktio), with our Navy and with our other armed forces. Moreover, with the last colonial agreement on the military bases (in October 2021), the government has given up everything and forever. The entire Greek territory, all military structures, the entire infrastructure of the country, so much so that the US Secretary of State Blinken bluntly called Greece a strategic node in the US strategic system. He didn’t tell us what that meant, of course. However, Russian Ambassador to Athens Andrei Maslov said, “The necessary Russian military countermeasures will be triggered.”
The Press Project: How do you think your life will be in 5-10 years?
Dimitris Koufontinas: In prison one cannot be without dreams, small dreams stimulated by a thought, a memory, a distant voice, something very small and insignificant, the chirping of the yellow warbler, the reddish leaf blown by the wind across the concrete yard, the moon anchored to the steel serpentine above the prison wall.
But my biggest dream is that the day will come when each of us has the right to our own little dreams and can hope for them to come true.
(1) Kassavetia Prison is located in Almyros, Magnesia, just outside the city of Volos.
(2) The Megaro Maximou houses the offices of the Greek Prime Minister and is located in the center of Athens.
(3) The crime of Evangelismou: Explosion of a bomb in the hands of Savvas Xiros in the port of Piraeus, Athens 2002.
(4) Kostis Palamas: Modern Greek poet, prose writer, dramatist, historian and literature critic. He is considered the most important representative of the generation of 1880.
(5) Text from a poem by Giannis Ritsos