The trial in Greece of activists who protested against Beijing holding the Winter Olympics has been postponed amid accusations that proceedings were delayed to avoid embarrassing China on the eve of the Games.
The highly anticipated hearing had been due to take place on Thursday in the town of Pyrgos, with human rights lawyers travelling from the UK and Athens to attend. The activists, who included a Briton, an American and a Tibetan-Canadian, were arrested when they briefly disrupted the Olympic flame lighting ceremony in October.
“Our pleas to the court for the case to be heard fell on deaf ears,” said Michael Polak at the legal aid group Justice Abroad, who had flown in from London on behalf of the defendants. “They pushed it into the long grass so as not to have to deliver a decision before the Beijing Olympics.”
Prior to rescheduling the trial for 1 December 2022, the three-member court’s presiding judge, Vassiliki Reppa, had instead focused on cases concerning boundary infringements and other minor disputes.
“We made an express plea to bring the case forward, as it was towards the end of the listed hearings, but the bench strongly refused to do so,” said Antonis Bachouros, a local lawyer also defending the activists. “They could have prioritised the case, given its sensitivity and the seriousness of the accusations, but chose not to.”
A court official told the Guardian on Friday it would not be commenting on the tribunal’s decision.
Human rights defenders have called for the “farcical” charges to be dropped.
The trio stands accused of attempting to “pollute, damage and distort” a historical monument – punishable by up to five years in prison under Greek law. All three were pinned to the ground before being detained in police cells for more than two days after waving a Tibetan flag and unfurling a “No genocide Games” banner during the ceremony.
“The protest itself must have lasted less than a minute,” said Free Tibet’s Jason Leith, expressing disappointment that the trial had not gone ahead. “Our aim was never to cause damage, and it is absurd to say that we did. All we had was a flag and a banner. We just wanted our voice to be heard in solidarity with all those oppressed by the Chinese Communist party.”
Speaking from London, where he lives, the 34-year-old described how he was tackled to the ground and told not to move or make any sound as the ceremony, filmed live by China’s state media, continued. “It was totally peaceful. We had hidden up in the hill above the ruins and when they saw us emerge, chanting, security forces pounced. I had the foot of a policeman on my back for about 15 minutes.”
On 17 October, a day earlier, two student activists, a Tibetan-American and Hong Kongese-American, were arrested in Athens as they chanted “Boycott Beijing 2022” and attempted to drape a Tibetan flag and a banner in support of freedom in Hong Kong from the Acropolis. They, too, were detained in police custody overnight. Their trial, on the same charge, had been due to take place last week, but was postponed after a snowstorm forced the closure of courts and other parts of the public sector.
In both cases, activists say they were protesting against the use of Olympic symbols for propaganda purposes by a Chinese regime responsible for crimes against humanity in Uyghur camps, repression of Tibetans and the continuing crackdown in Hong Kong.
“There was neither destruction nor damage to the sites and the accusation is groundless and invalid,” said the prominent human rights lawyer Alexis Anagnostakis. “They chose the Acropolis and Olympia as symbols of democracy and the cradle of western civilisation … They deserve praise instead of arrests and handcuffs.”
Rights groups described the “disproportionate” criminalisation of people protesting against abuses as especially worrying. “They are not criminals,” said Pema Doma at the New York-based Students For a Free Tibet. “The international community must not allow them to be scapegoated through Beijing’s growing influence in democratic countries.”
But experts in Sino-Greek relations say the protests will undoubtedly have been seen as an unnecessary irritant. Athens has long been hesitant to censure Chinese president Xi Jinping, and infuriated other western capitals when it vetoed an EU condemnation of China’s human rights record at the UN in 2017.
China is a major investor in the Mediterranean nation, pumping around €1bn into the country at the height of its debilitating debt crisis, when it acquired a majority stake in the strategic port of Piraeus.
“Greek authorities, mostly for political reasons, are very reluctant to embarrass China,” said Plamen Tonchev, who heads the Asia unit at the Athens-based Institute of International Economic Relations. “Indicative of this cautiousness is its consistent abstention from any statements – and there have been many since 2019 – that criticise China’s policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.”
Polak said that, despite their disappointment, the activists not only remained determined to fight “this politically motivated and ridiculous case”, but to take the matter all the way to the European court of human rights. “The Greek state is in breach of its international obligations under the European convention on human rights by prosecuting this case, no matter the eventual result,” he said, adding that freedom of expression and peaceful assembly were considered sacrosanct by the Strasbourg-based tribunal.
“China’s strong influence over Greece’s leadership and institutions should be worrying for all Greek people, who have a strong history and belief in standing up against totalitarianism.”