(warning for potentially triggering details of sexual and physical abuse and violence, murder)
At the end of 2018 three important murders took place in Greece that highlighted these systemic violences: on the 21st of September the murder of queer activist and human rights campaigner Zak Kostopoulos in Athens, on the 26th of November the murder of the Albanian migrant land worker Petrit Zilfe in Corfu by a member of Golden Dawn, and on the 27th of November the rape and murder of the student Eleni Topaloudi in Rhodos.
(The placard in front reads: Zackie, Eleni and Petrit were our people)
2020 is proving to be a seminal year for justice in Greece. This summer the very controversial, groundbreaking, but also rife with political machinations, trial of the Golden Dawn (which is centered on the murder of antifascist Pavlos Fyssas in September 2013) is scheduled to finally conclude after five years. On the contrary, the much delayed trial for the murder of Zak Kostopoulos is still anticipated. And only a couple of days ago the verdict on the equally groundbreaking trial for the rape and murder of Eleni Topaloudi was announced. A story and trial that has shaken Greece to its foundations and has exposed the systemic violences and oppressions that were a common kept secret.
The social and political context
Eleni’s murder was a femicide. But what makes this femicide so different from all the other femicides that take place in Greece? (Just in 2019, at least 12 femicides have been recorded in the country.) The extreme brutality of her torture and death shocked the country and gave her front page visibility, and her case was taken up by feminists and activists throughout Greece as a rallying cry and a symbol against the country’s embedded patriarchal culture. But more than that, her case did not just expose the deeply entrenched sexism of Greek society, but also it’s racism, xenophobia, classism and the complicity and corruption of its institutions.
Sadly, one of the most shocking things about her case and her trial, was that her case was investigated properly by an incorruptible and conscientious police officer – in itself a stroke of luck most rare in Greece, especially for a case of gender violence – and was awarded to a (female) state prosecutor who actually looked at the evidence objectively and supported the rights of the victim and her family – something also extremely rare in the reality of Greece’s juridical system in cases of gender violence. Her case captured the zeitgeist of the moment even more serendipitiously as just the summer before the trial, in June 2019, in a historic victory for women: the Greek criminal code was amended to recognise officially in law that all sex without consent is rape, making it clear for the first time that physical violence is not required for the crime to be considered rape (Law 4619/2019 article 336). As such the case was not only ground breaking but has also set an important precedent in Greece.
(The banner reads: Violence against women is our global everyday life)
October 2018 had been an emotional month for the lgbtq+, queer and feminist greek community as it had been filled with the struggle to uncover the truth of Zak’s murder and to clear his name as it had been dragged through the mud in an effort to discredit him and minimise him as the victim of a violent crime of prejudice. The exact same thing that was to happen to Eleni, one of the all too familiar methods used to prop up the patriarchy and the status quo of Greek society and keep the Other silent and in check. When Eleni’s body was discovered at the end of November, the wave of rage and indignation grew exponentially with the feminist rallies and protests organised being the biggest in Greece in recent times. The violence that Zak and Eleni had been victims of was identified as two sides of the same coin. Feminist activists took an active interest in the case from the beginning, keeping a steady and critical eye on it as the investigations and trial unfolded putting pressure to ensure justice was served and none of the details were hidden. This is one of the reasons why the case didn’t follow the usual route of such cases: the discovery of the crime is splashed across the headlines in a sensationalist manner and the gory details are dwelled upon in sadistic glee. Afterwards the victim is slandered and blamed while excuses are made for the accused and finally the trial is buried and the verdict is reported as postscript in one of the back pages.
The details of the rape and murder of Eleni Topaloudi
As the case of Eleni Topaloudi unfolded, from the discovery of her mangled body on the 28th of November 2018, to the beginning of the court-case on the 13th of January 2020, to the verdict coming out on the 15th of May 2020, it proved to be a convoluted and complex mess involving a wide cast of characters, so much so that if it had happened in another country, it would be picked up to be dramatised for a gripping television mini-series.
On the morning of the 28th of November two divers discovered the mangled body of a young woman on the rocks in the shallow below the cliffs near Lindos in the island of Rhodos. Her body has been brutalised to such an extent that she was unrecognisable and the only identifying feature the local police had to go on to identify her was the tattoo of a rose on her ankle. A fact that made the murder even more shocking was that she had not died from the brutal beating she had been subjected to prior to being thrown into the sea, nor had she died from the 10m drop off the cliff onto the rocks below, but rather she had died slowly and agonisingly over many hours due to drowning in the shallows as she lay paralysed from her injuries and unable to move.
The day before, Eleni Topaloudi, a 21 year old student in Rhodos from the northern border town of Didymoteicho, had gone missing and very quickly she was identified as the dead woman. It was only a matter of time through CCTV footage to discover the car and the men she had last been seen with before her murder. And this was when things first started to get complicated. The men were identified as 20 year old Alexander Loutsai of Albanian descent and 21 year old Manolis Koukouros, the son of a local rich and influential family.
Eleni had met Alexander a week before the fatal night, and they had been flirting. That night he came to pick her up from her house in the town for what she believed was to be a date. He came in the van of Manolis’ father with Manolis in the back. She was surprised at the unexpected third member of the party and asked to go to eat as they had agreed. They persuaded her to pick up takeaway and to go to Manolis’ family’s summer house in Lindos to eat. Once there, they tried to persuade her to have sex with them, but she refused. They threatened her with a knife and punched and beat her but she continued to resist. Eventually they overpowered her and gang raped her. Afterwards they tried to persuade her to perform further sexual acts with them, but she continued to refuse so they beat her until she was unconscious and then performed the acts. When she regained consciousness, she told them she would go to the police so they tried strangling her but remained unable to kill her. They then hit her several times with an electric iron until she had multiple fractures in her skull and her ear was cut off, yet she still lived. She begged them to take her to the hospital, but they carried her barely conscious naked body to the van and drove her to some out of the way cliffs. Together, as she continued to ask to be taken to a hospital and to tell them her father would not let them get away with it, they threw her still living naked body over the 10 metre high cliff to the rocks and the shallow sea below hoping the tide would take her body out. She was still alive when she reached the bottom and died slowly over the course of many hours from drowning. The two men then disposed of her clothes and belongings and the electric iron and returned to the house and tried to clean it of all the blood. They didn’t manage to get rid of all of it, and when the police investigated they found her blood in the living room, kitchen, bathroom and stairs.
How the case and the trial exposed the oppressive realities and dirty secrets of Greek society
The local news was very eager to emphasise the nationalities of the implicated men and to paint the Greek man as an unwilling participant who was influenced by the “violent and dangerous foreigner”. This fact was quickly proven false as Manolis had a history of bad behaviour and run-ins with the police that had until then been smoothed over by the money and influence of his family. Despite this, the racist and xenophobic language of much of the press did not abate, and later on Manolis defence attorneys tried to use this sentiment during the trial to pin the rape and murder of Eleni exclusively on Alexander. The inherent racism of the state institutions played out in other interesting ways as well, for example when the two men were brought in for questioning, Alexander broke and confessed while Manolis still insisted on his innocence. For those of us who know that the Greek police follow different rules when dealing with Greeks and different rules when dealing with “foreigners”, this came as a surprise to no one.
However it was also quickly uncovered that Alexander had a series of prior accusations of rape and sexual assault, and at the time was being investigated for the gang rape of a 19 year old disabled woman together with another man. (This case is still ongoing as it has been delayed several times.) During the trial of Eleni’s murder, two other women came out to accuse the two defendants of sexually abusing or raping them. What is more, it came to light that one year before (in November 2017) Eleni had been gang raped and videoed by three different men in Rhodos (one of whom it later came out was a friend of Manolis), who then made the video public and threatened her with bodily harm if she didn’t keep quiet. She had gone to the police at the time, afraid and traumatised, and had been strongly counselled by them to let the matter go and to keep it to herself. Something that happens all too often in Greece, and is one of the many reasons so few rape cases ever make it to trial.
To even further illustrate the deep seated sexism and rape culture of Greek society, and the kind of systematic war that is waged against women who dare speak up or try to fight back, an organised attack on Eleni and her character took place in the mainstream media and on social media. Her private facebook page was inundated with comments accusing her of being a “loose woman who asked for it” or even a prostitute. Insinuations were made that she was crazy or unstable. It was alleged that she was the one who had wanted to have a threesome with the two men. Even during the trial the defence attorneys tried to use the fact that she wasn’t in a long term relationship as proof she was unstable and mentally unwell, and spent a large portion of the trial character assassinating the murdered woman making use of every single sexist stereotype and accusation that is used to keep women in their place. During one point in the proceedings one of the defence attorneys even used the fact that she was found with her bra on (and nothing else) as proof she wasn’t raped, as he couldn’t imagine a rape where the bra is kept on. The deep strain of sexism that tainted the whole trial proceedings was further illustrated by the defence attorneys’ attempt to exclude women from being part of the jury due to them not being trusted to be “impartial”, as well as by the backlash the (female) public defendant received for her emotional and brutally honest final speech.
This case was not only rife with xenophobia and sexism, it brought to the fore all the most ugly aspects of Greek society in the way the defendants and their families dealt with it. Manolis’s rich and influential family tried to use their money and position to get their son off, not only by engaging the local media and their local network of influence to smear and defame the victim, but an organised attack was also made on the police officer in charge of the investigation, due to the fact he investigated the crime thoroughly and impartially, and multiple attempts were made to remove him from the case and hand it over to someone “more friendly”. A large portion of the community rallied around “one of their own” despite the heinousness of the crime, reinforcing the traditional impunity of rich and “important” families in small (but not only) communities.
All too often it is the institution of the Greek family that breeds gendered violence and reinforces the patriarchy, as evidenced by the amount of cases of rapes of young girls and children by fathers, grandfathers, uncles and the not uncommon complicitness of the mothers in keeping it secret and siding with the men of the family over their own daughters. Similarly men’s violence and right to do as they will, is protected and reinforced. Alexander’s sister testified that her brother was in a relationship with the victim and that it had been her iea to have a threesome. Manolis’ grandmother testified that she had been in the building at the time of the crime one floor below and heard and saw nothing. Manolis’ father smoothed over all his previous misdemeanours and run-ins with the police and similarly believed he could also protect his son from punishment from this crime. Private psychiatrists were employed to prescribe him drugs and testify he had mental health issues trying to build up the case he was not in his “right mind” when committing the rape and murder, reinforcing the stigmatisation and vilification of individuals who suffer from mental health problems and continuing with the narrative that such acts are “aberrations” of abnormal individuals rather than the logical outcomes of the inherent violence of such a patriarchal society.
The fact that the case and the trial was put so much under the microscope meant that things that are usually hidden, or ignored by common agreement, were now made public. Such as the deep corruption, incestuousness and overreaching hold of the Greek state and political class. The family of the local man had such deep seated links to the institutions of the community, that his defence attorney had been the official representative of the party currently in government (New Democracy) for the region of the Dodekanisa (where the island of Rhodos belongs) during the national elections of the preceding summer. And in a turn of unexpected events the status quo objected so much to the final speech by the state prosecutor that Akis Skertsos, the vice-minister to the prime minister, took to social media while the trial was ongoing to tone police her and accuse her of being too “feminine” and emotional and empathising too much with the victim. An event that snowballed as the opposition raised an official motion in parliament to have him suspended for overstepping his bounds as a member of the executive branch of the state and interfering with the working of the judicial branch and influencing public opinion. This resulted in the vice-minister’s interference in an ongoing trial being discussed at length in parliament concurrently with the trial’s final speeches being made and verdict deliberated.
Such was the upheaval created by the speech of the state prosecutor, who dared to stray from the traditional narrative and say what is never said, that the final days of the trial turned into even more of a public circus. The association of attorneys were so incensed by her accusations against the defence attorneys of obscuring the truth and being complicit in the lies of the defendants, that an official letter was penned by their president demanding she be disciplined and the courtroom was stormed while in session by an angry mob of attorneys in protest. Proving once again that the defence of the status quo and the professional interests of guilds are more important than the truth or the fair process of trial.
(The banner reads: They are killing us, not one Eleni less)
The state prosecutor’s final speech, the verdict and the aftermath
One of the most important points in the trial was the groundbreaking, for the Greek justice system, final speech by the state prosecutor Aristotelia Doga. While Ms Doga is not a feminist and her speech was by no means perfect, it was a speech like none other ever made in a Greek trial for gendered violence. The public prosecutor showed an amazing amount of empathy for the victim and her family, speaking on her behalf and addressing herself frequently quite personally to the bereaved parents. She condemned the attempts at defamation made against the victim, but she also made the very important distinction that even if she hadn’t fought back, even if she had had sex with one of the defendants on a previous occasion, just the fact that she had not consented that night made it rape. Something that has never been said so clearly in a rape case in Greece before and fully reinforced the new rape amendments to the criminal law setting a very important precedent.
But she was not just satisfied with that, and with brutal and incisive honesty she laid bare the whole rotten system that breeds such “monsters”. She stated that monsters are not born but created and supported. She called out the family of the local man for turning him into the man he became with the way they raised him and protected him from the consequences of his transgressions and crimes. She called out the community that rallied behind one of their own, despite his brutal actions. She called out the corruptness of the institutions highlighting the attempts made to remove the officer in charge of the case due to his refusal to “play the game” and the way the attorneys of the defence worked hard at muddying and obscuring the truth and were unafraid to lie. She called out not only the strong current of sexism and treatment of women’s bodies as objects for men’s amusement that characterised the treatment of the case and the trial since the beginning, but also the strong elements of racism and xenophobia that permeated it in the way the defendant of Albanian descent was vilified while the Greek was coddled, as well as the clear classism that came into play as the Greek’s family tried to use their money in any way they could to give their son a soft landing. She made it very clear that while this crime was committed by two men, they were not the only ones guilty of the rape and murder of Eleni, and all the other women with a fate like Elenis’ in Greece and the world, their families and communities played an integral part in making them feel that they had the right to violate Eleni as they did for they own satisfaction and get away with it. Society itself and the state’s institutions in most cases ensure that they do get away with it. Finally she stated that she strongly urged the defendants be punished to the full extent of the law with no mitigating circumstances to be accepted.
The public prosecutor’s speech was so shocking, heartfelt and honest that not only did she tear up as she was giving it, but in a move that has never happened before in a Greek courtroom (and that is strictly prohibited) the audience stood up and applauded. Her speech was printed verbatim in the mainstream press and read out on the television and the radio, and men and women who heard it actually wept in the street because it was so true and they recognised it as the reality of the oppression they endured daily. But similarly the backlash has been strong and brutal as the instruments of the patriarchy do not take kindly to their power and brutality being exposed or questioned. One of the main accusations being levied against her is that of being too emotional and feminine and not objective enough in her speech, in other words being a woman, and thus not being professional or fit for the task.
After the civil prosecution attorneys and the defence attorneys also made their final speeches the jury came back with an unanimous guilty verdict sentencing them each to a life sentence for premeditated homicide and 15 years for gang rape with no concessions made due to their youth. Furthermore the court and the civil prosecution attorneys requested that the father and grandmother of Manolis, the sister of Alexander and two other witnesses be investigated for perjury as well as the various implicated psychiatrists who testified and wrote last minute prescriptions for Manolis be investigated for malpractice. It is a huge and unprecedented win, only slightly tempered by the knowledge that life sentence, especially to young men, in real terms only means ten years.
While the successful conclusion of this case is an important victory, it is by no means the end. The case of Zak hasn’t even yet gone to trial, and there are many more Elenis who are unknown and unsung. The feminist movement has just grown stronger from this event and will not rest until femicide is officially recognised as a crime in Greece and gendered violence is erradicated. One positive effect of the successful prosecution of the perpetrators, is that there has been a sharp rise in the number of rapes being reported in Greece, we can only hope that more of them are also successfully brought to trial.
In the words of the movement that fought to ensure Eleni received the justice she deserved:
“Never forget what happened to Eleni / Not one more murdered”
“Let justice prevail even if it destroys the whole world”
(The placards read: We are not all here, the murdered are missing and They hit one of us, we all respond.)