THESSALONIKI – Thousands of protesters marched through the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki and the capital Athens Tuesday night, as Roma community leaders appealed for calm hours after the death of a teenager shot in the head last week during a police chase over an allegedly unpaid gas station bill.
The Dec 5 shooting of the 16-year-old Roma youth in Thessaloniki triggered days of often violent protests in the two cities and other parts of Greece despite repeated calls from his relatives and community leaders for protests to remain peaceful.
“I call on everyone, on all of Greece, on all Roma, to remain calm above all else about this event,” said Panagiotis Sambanis, president of the Roma community of Central and Eastern Macedonia, shortly after hospital authorities announced the teenager’s death Tuesday.
About 3,000 people marched in Thessaloniki, where the teenager lived and died, and a similar protest was held in Athens after student and anarchist groups called for protests following his death. Greek media reported protesters setting tires on fire and blocking roads during rallies in several parts of the country.
Clashes broke out at the end of the march in Thessaloniki, when a group of a few dozen protesters broke off from the demonstration, setting fire to trash dumpsters and throwing Molotov cocktails at police, who responded with tear gas. Police detained 35 people.
More limited scuffles occurred in Athens, where the protest was largely peaceful.
Authorities have not named the teenager, but relatives have identified him as Kostas Frangoulis, who was married and had a young child.
“Everyone here is crying. It is unjust for a child to leave like this,” Antonis Tasios, secretary of the Roma community where the teenager lived. “We (feel) great pain.”
Frangoulis had remained hospitalized in intensive care since undergoing emergency surgery after the shooting. The hospital said he succumbed to his injury Tuesday morning despite the medical team's efforts. His funeral is scheduled for Thursday.
Police in Thessaloniki said about 50 people emerged from a university campus Tuesday afternoon and threw several Molotov cocktails at a riot police unit stationed nearby. No injuries were reported.
A police officer on a motorcycle shot the teenager during a pursuit after the youth filled up his pickup truck at a gas station and allegedly drove off without paying the 20-euro ($21) bill.
Police have said the teen tried to ram the police motorbikes involved in the chase. The 34-year-old officer charged in the case said during an initial court appearance last week that he fired his weapon to stop the pickup truck because he feared for the lives of his colleagues, but that he had aimed at the tires, not the driver.
The Roma community has denounced the shooting as having racist motives. Several Roma men have been injured or fatally shot in recent years during confrontations with police while allegedly seeking to evade arrest for breaches of the law.
“It wasn’t the gas, it wasn’t the money, the cops shot because he was Roma,” the protesters in Thessaloniki chanted.
Members of the Roma community in Greece have long faced discrimination, and many often live on the margins of society.
The police officer accused of firing the fatal shot was suspended and has been under house arrest since Friday on a felony count of attempted manslaughter with possible intent and a misdemeanor count of illegally firing his weapon.
It is highly likely the felony charge will be amended to manslaughter due to the teen's death. A court decision on whether to jail or release the officer on bail pending trial is expected in the coming days.
Sambanis, the Roma community leader, said Frangoulis’ family was expecting the police officer to be remanded in pre-trial detention.
“These moments we are going through are difficult, difficult moments for the family, for the father, for the mother and for his wife. His wife is in a very bad condition,” Sambanis said.
Citizens' Protection Minister Takis Theodorikakos, who has jurisdiction over Greek police, tweeted his “deep sorrow for the death of the 16-year-old boy” and extended his condolences to the teenager's family.
“I repeat that this case is being investigated by the judicial system, which is the only one competent to assess the facts and judge responsibilities,” the minister wrote. “Let us all respect that.”