Dissemination of true information (Greek text at: http://www.iospress.gr/mikro2001/mikro20010210.htm
"Unprecedented sentence for a crime of opinion"
English Translation by: Greek Helisnki Monitor
(Hellenic League of Human Rights, 6/2/2001)
Not even during the period of nationalistic hysteria in 1992-93 did we witness the likes of such a trial. The defendant was architect Sotiris Bletsas, accused of the offense of "disseminating false information" (article 191 of the Penal Code). His offense? On 1 July 1995, at the panhellenic meeting of Vlachs in Naoussa, he distributed - actually, he handed to Fotios Kilipiris, the president of the Panhellenic Union of Vlachs - an English-language publication from the European Bureau of Lesser Used Languages (EBLUL), which, among other things, stated that in certain regions of Greece five other languages are spoken in addition to Greek. This event provoked the rage of Evgenios Haitidis, the Nea Democratia MP from Serres, who was present at the meeting. The result was the arrest of Mr. Bletsas and charges filed against him. After various judicial battings back and forth and a series of continuances, the case finally reached the 10th Three-Member Misdemeanor Court of Athens on February 2nd.
The case should have been deemed totally ridiculous, since the disputed text (which, as we explain in the adjacent column, comes from a semi-official organization of the European Union) contained no reference to politically charged notions, such as minorities, but simply to languages - whose spoken use has never been disputed. However, as we had the opportunity to ascertain first hand as witnesses for the defense in this very trial, in the Greek Judicial System even the self-evident can constitute a type of "state secret," which must be suppressed at all costs - and by punishment with imprisonment.
In vain, the defense submitted a host of documentation - official Greek government statistics, Foreign Ministry documents, university textbooks and doctoral dissertations, statements from politicians and assorted publications - verifying not only the fact that these languages are spoken in Greece but, moreover, that this fact has been repeatedly attested to by all manner of individuals and institutions. In vain, the Slavologist Alexandra Ioannidou, a witness for the defense, explained the self-evident: that any form of linguistic communication among people qualifies under the term of language. In vain, finally, the defense attorney Lambros Baltsiotis extracted statements from the prosecution's witnesses specifying the truth of the text at issue: that the disputed languages are, in fact, spoken today (also), indeed, in certain villages in the Serres prefecture that elected the orchestrator of all these proceedings.
As principal witness for the prosecution, Mr. Haitidis's own testimony, moreover, was unable to enlighten the court, except for the level and content of his censorship reasoning. "My grandparents didn't know a word of Greek, just Turkish," he stated, only to proudly add, "But I never learned a word of that language and I speak only Greek." Obviously the learning of languages is not a human skill but a defect one should be ashamed of! As for the substance of the case, there the ND parliamentarian couldn't help but make a mess of it. To the general hilarity of those observing the procedure, he first assured the court that "other languages are not spoken anywhere in Greece," then continued by clarifying that "they might be spoken by some naive individuals, but not by organized groups," and ended with the contention that "what are spoken are not languages, but idioms." Obviously not wishing to humiliate themselves before the court, the remaining witnesses for the prosecution (Mayor Yeorgios Makris of Prosotsani and Ioannis Zaparas, a national telecommunications employee) concentrated their own testimonies on this last point: whatever is spoken besides Greek is simply "idiom." Besides, it was difficult for them to put forth more serious disclaimers when, in the corridor outside the courtroom, passersby overheard these same individuals conversing in Vlach!
And yet...it was on this very distinction that the majority of the court decided to base its judgment in favor of the nonexistence of other languages in Greece. "Agreed, all those things are spoken. But are they spoken as languages or as idioms?" was the unvarying question that the court's president Zoe Kostoyanni put to the witnesses. There were also less "technical" questions and even openly voiced political opinions. For instance, the president insisted that the witnesses declare "whether our country has minority problems," while Judge Maria Ralli-Katrivanou's question was even more eloquent: "Okay, all those things are spoken. But ought we to be talking about it? Especially if we take into consideration all that has happened in recent years with the Macedonian issue that profoundly affected us as Greeks? At least that's how I believe we ought to feel. I'd like your opinion." Given all that, certain details about the rest of the process, such as the president's toleration of "spontaneous" interventions from the public that derided the defense's witnesses, can be considered of minor significance.
The questions that the court put to the accused were, otherwise, revelatory: "How many times have you gone to Brussels and in what capacity?" "What business did you have going to Naoussa?" You're a learned man; didn't it occur to you that if you go to your fellow-nationals [sic] and hand out that leaflet that it would cause a disturbance?" "Wasn't the fact that you were arrested a disturbance?" The significance of the day was synopsized, finally, by the prosecutor Nikolaous Seintis: "Today," he began his summation, "we have been dealing with an important matter, which can be synopsized in the lines of the poet: 'The language I was given is Greek.' The issue of language is fundamental. We are talking about the deciding factor that shapes national consciousness, about a racial criterion. The accused should have been more careful when he distributed this leaflet." There was also a reference made to EBLUL, the organization that published the leaflet: "Perhaps the Europeans have not been properly informed, since some actual individual has compiled this text. This individual should be located and bear the consequences." The president of the court also expressed the same opinion concerning the "actual individual" who compiled the European organization's Map.
After all this, the outcome of the trial was a foregone conclusion. What that in his plea the defendant professed his Greek national consciousness while refusing to condemn his mother tongue? With the exception of Judge Stamata Petsali, the 10th Misdemeanor Court of Athens ruled that the reference to the speaking of languages other than Greek constitutes a criminal offence. Mr. Bletsas may have had to repeat first grade because he didn't know Greek, but he was sentenced to 15 months imprisonment and a fine of 500,000 drachmas for a simple reference to his mother "idiom." Precisely the way the Turkish courts have proclaimed the Kurdish language "nonexistent."
The "banned publication" and the "illegal" EBLUL
The text that cost Mr. Bletsas the lengthy trial is as follows: "Greek is the official State language. There are six lesser used or regional languages: Arvanite (Arberichte), which is spoken in numerous communities spread throughout the country; Aroumanian (Armanesti) in the mountainous areas of Thessaly, Epirus and Pindus; Bulgarian (Balgarski) which is spoken in Western Thrace by the Pomaks, who are a Muslim community; Slav-Macedonian (Makedonski) in the north of Greece; and Turkish (Turkce) in western Thrace. There is also a rather large Gypsy community."
We have not translated the text from its original English because that is exactly how it was included in the briefs, despite the fact that procedure calls for official translations of all documents and, in particular, those supporting the prosecution's case.
Instead of a translation, we quote (and endorse) the proclamation by Minority Groups Research Center (KEMO): "As a matter of principle KEMO does not intervene in matters of current events. As an exception, however, due to the unprecedented in judicial chronicles trial of a Greek citizen for 'disseminating false information' (where the false information was the existence in that state of other languages in addition to Greek), we are impelled to make the following statement. In Greece, traditionally and in addition to Greek, the following languages are spoken (in alphabetical order): Arvanitika, Vlach, Macedonobulgarian (which combines the southern Slavic dialects of Macedonia and Thrace), Turkish, and (Gypsy) Romani."
The publication that cost Mr. Bletsas the trial does not, of course, refer only to Greece. It has recorded the 43 "lesser used languages" in the European Union and apportions them to the various countries. However, it has never occurred to the courts of any other EU country to start judicial proceedings against someone for "disseminating false information." Furthermore, it would be ludicrous to initiate judicial proceedings against a publication that has been compiled within the EU framework by an official European institution and has been unanimously accepted by the European Parliament! The disputed publication bears the signature of the European Bureau of Lesser Used Languages (EBLUL), a European organization that is funded and regulated by the Commission and the European Parliament. The first form of the Map was included in the 1991 report compiled by European parliamentarian Mark Kililea "concerning the current status of less widespread languages and cultural elements within the European Community." The Kililea report (A3-0042/94) was approved by an overwhelming majority (318 for, 1 against, 6 abstentions) in the European Parliament (9/2/1994). Of course, Greek Euro-parliamentarians from the entire political spectrum voted in its favor.
In the same decision, the European Parliament "calls upon the governments of its member-states to encourage and support the commissions maintained by the European Bureau of Lesser Used Languages within the member-states, thereby clarifying the responsibilities that citizens and their organizations bear in the development of their own language." Mr. Bletsas was following this simple directive and found himself on the threshold of a prison! It's superfluous to add that after the decision by the 10th Three-Member Court, no one in Greece is about to contemplate setting up a Bureau commission as per the European Parliament's directive. S/he would be risking execution by summary procedures.
RELEVANT IOS TEXTS