Greece Cracks Down on Political Asylum as NATO Called in for Olympics Security

NATO is being asked to take a hand in security for the Olympic Games to be held in Athens in August.

The day after bombs killed some 200 and wounded more than 1,400 in Madrid, the Greek government formally asked the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to get involved in Olympics security operations.

Security is being looked now as an international and not just a Greek concern. The Athens Olympics will be the largest international gathering to take place after Sep. 11, 2001. The first Olympics were held in Athens in 776 BC.

The Greek government expects NATO to play a role in what an official called “aerial alert, joint monitoring of the seas, and protection from chemical, biological and nuclear incidents.”

Patrolling the seas is of particular importance to Greece. Hundreds of islands could serve as entry points in what the daily Kathimerini calls “the country’s Achilles’ heel.”

The request for NATO help also has a political dimension, the newspaper noted. “The cooperation with foreign intelligence services is significant, of course, but responsibility for any attack ultimately lies with Greece. However, if Greece’s Olympic security is brought under the NATO umbrella, political responsibility will be shared. And this will be extremely important in the event of any unfortunate incident.”

Athens is already in the midst of a two-week security exercise named ‘Hercules Shield 2004’. The exercise being held with U.S. participation involves mock attacks by terrorists and hijackers and rapid anti-terrorism reaction at all command levels.

Security measures involve the European Union (EU) and not just NATO. A seven-nation unit is reviewing all possible details to make the safety network iron-tight against terrorism.

Security costs are expected to add up to 800 million dollars, three times the money spent on the last Olympics in Sydney. The Olympics have been targets of terrorist attacks before; Palestinian gunmen killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Between Aug. 13 and 29, Athens will host more than 10,000 athletes from 199 countries contesting in 28 sports. About 1.5 million spectators are expected to attend, and more than 20,000 from the media.

More than 50,000 security personnel, including 10,000 from the military will be on guard to make the Games the “best and most secure ever,” in the words of new Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis. Security measures will include more than 1,400 security cameras with ‘hearing aids’, and surveillance by helicopters and AWACS aircraft.

Success of the Olympics has become such an overriding issue and matter of national pride that Karamanlis has named himself also the culture minister in charge of the Games, or the ‘Olympics minister’ as the culture minister is now called.

While the security issue looms high, Karamanlis is also trying to ensure full preparedness of all sites in a race against time. Only 15 of 38 venues are reported complete, with delays also in rail and tramway facilities and in setting up an 80 million dollar retractable steel and glass roof designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, and considered the architectural jewel of the Games.

Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyianni says “everything humanly possible” is being done to ensure a safe Olympics. Domestically, Greece smashed its small but elusive leftist terrorist cell last year. And Bakoyianni adds that al-Qaeda has never been active on Greek soil.

“The fact that nothing has happened in Greece doesn’t mean that it will not happen,” Theodoros Kallitsis, assistant professor of criminology at the Greek Police Academy told media representatives. He said terrorists can strike “no matter how many guards and cameras you will place.”

The only visible sign of danger so far is from protests against the Games. A group calling itself Phevos & Athena (the two mascots of the games representing the god of light and the goddess of wisdom, and the matron of Athens) claimed responsibility for minor firebombings to protest the visit of International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials to Athens.

The protests are largely aimed at tough security measures for the Olympics and the restrictions against street protests during the Games. “We don’t accept a police state or an invasion by the United States and NATO,” the protesters said in a declaration.

Security measures have had other kinds of fallout. Amnesty International says Greece is using security concerns to regard asylum seekers “as potential terrorists and not as people trying to escape terror.” Amnesty said Greece approved 11.2 percent of asylum requests in 2001, but this number dropped to 0.3 percent in 2002 and to 0.1 percent last year.

“Political asylum is being abandoned in the name of the war on terrorism,” Costis Papaioannou of Amnesty’s Greek branch told a press conference. “Furthermore, security for the 2004 Olympics is used in Greece as a pretext to systematically break international treaties on the rights of refugees.”

But support is growing for the Olympic truce campaign to keep the Games safe –similar to the cease-fire between warring city-states during the Games in ancient Greece.