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Old dictators never die

Statistically speaking, most dictators are ousted some time during their career. A few, however, manage to retire or die in bed — Stalin, Ulbricht, Pinochet, Franco and Salazar come to mind. Others escape to friendly asylum abroad, like Idi Amin of Uganda or Mengistu of Ethiopia. Those overthrown are sometimes executed, such as Mussolini and Ceausescu. Another one, Hitler, took his own life. Only few dictators are toppled, apprehended, tried by a court, and eventually sentenced.

At present, there are two dictators awaiting judgment: Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Lukashenko of Belorussia keeps his options open.

Three decades ago, there existed a team of three plus one dictators who were tried, sentenced to death, and pardoned to life imprisonment. All of them spent close to a quarter century in jail.

The world has long forgotten their names. Only their fellow countrymen still keep a painful memory of them, and historians love them for their unusual resumes. They were dictators of Greece from 1968 to 1973. Their names were Giorgios Papadopoulos, Stelios Pattakos and Nikos Makarezos. Another one, Dimitri Joannides, joined them later.

Papadopoulos, the team leader, was a major and later colonel in the Greek army. He had served during World War II. Later it became known that he had been a CIA agent since 1952 when he headed the Greek secret police KYP and acted as liaison officer between Langley and Athens.

In a surprise move, he and his friends seized power shortly before an election which they thought would give the Left a majority. Rumours had it that the CIA had helped engineer the coup. In any case, Papadopoulos was the first known CIA agent to serve as head of a European government.

More than 10,000 potential opponents were arrested shortly after the coup, and 6,000 were sent to prison islands. Strict censorship was introduced and the secret police arrested and tortured thousands. When young King Constantine, misguided by his ambitious and widely hated mother Friederike, launched a royalist putsch which failed, he had to leave Greece for exile in Italy. Papadopoulos later abolished the monarchy — a step which the Greeks wholeheartedly supported.

A fanatic anti-communist who loved the United States, Papadopoulos added some remarkable innovations to the toolbox of dictators. He and his comrades not only banned leftist publications but leftist thought and even music. They banned music composed and performed by the likes of Mikis Theodorakis. They forced publishers and record presses to destroy all masters and recordings made by these composers, and punished whoever dared to play such offensive music. (Greek cunning must have helped saving some of the masters because all lost recordings have subsequently risen from the ashes)

Papadopoulos also was a racist who believed in the purity of the Greek nation and tried to stamp out all reference to past centuries of Ottoman rule. The smallest port of Piraeus, Tourkolimano (the Turkish port) was rebaptized “Mikrolimani” (the small port). Now the place is again called Tourkolimano.

The junta praised the military as the purifier of Greece. Everywhere in the country empty surfaces were adorned with slogans such as “Zito o stratos!” Hail to the military!

Apart from these rather childish activities, the colonels — as they were called — imposed a brutal regime. They jailed thousands of Greeks suspected of leftist ideas on rat infested prison islands like Yaros and Leros which — due to their high share of intellectuals and artists — became de facto universities and academies where poor and near-illiterate farm boys and workers received free education and training by some of the brightest and most talented of Hellenes.

The date of April 21st, the anniversary of the junta's coup d'etat in 1968, became deeply engraved in the mind of Greeks, like April 20th (Hitler's birthday) was in German memories.

After seven depressing years during which the Greek economy stagnated and tourism suffered; the regime was internationally isolated. Only the Italian neofascists and extreme right wingers Jean Marie Le Pen of France and Franz Josef Strauss of Bavaria cheered them. The colonels were finally toppled in November 1973 after they had botched an attempt to seize power in Cyprus and triggered the invasion of northern Cyprus by the Turkish army.

Papadopoulos & friends were put under house arrest by a new military dictator, Dimitri Joannides. Papadopoulos had not tried to flee to friendly shores like the Côte d'Azur (where Baby Doc Duvalier later enjoyed his exile from Haiti). After Joannides was removed and democracy returned to Greece, the colonels and General Joannides were tried in court as traitors and sentenced to death. Papadopoulos had refused to testify in court. Only a few minutes after the verdict, the new (and old) president Constantine Karamanlis pardoned them to life imprisonment.

They served their sentence in the infamous Korydallos high security prison outside Athens but — according to the Justice Ministry — under much better conditions than average inmates who in 1995 staged a large scale revolt to protest inhumane conditions.

Papadopoulos never repented. He insisted that he had saved Greece from communism. Despite being safely locked up, his spectre continued to haunt the Greeks. In 1984 he attempted a political comeback from inside the prison as head of a small right-wing National Political Union party which won a seat in the European Parliament.

He refused to apply for amnesty, and he died in summer of 1999 at age 80 from cancer in the Laikos Hospital. The British correspondent Hugh Barnes, one of the last people to visit Papadopoulos, said “Like the old soldier he was, George Papadopoulos never died. For a quarter of a century, the former military dictator of Greece just faded away in his prison cell.”

His comrades Pattakos and Makarezos, both in their eighties, were pardoned on health grounds and disappeared from public sight. “Democracy is a courageous and generous form of government”, former Justice Minister Evangelos Venizelos said. “It has sensitivities no other form of government has.”

Pattakos is still living; Makarezos died. Joannides, who for his cruelty was nicknamed "the butcher" lost a recent appeal and continues to serve his term in Korydallos prison.

Greeks, however, continue to remember April 21st.

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—— John Wantock