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Greece scraps university sanctuary law banning police from campuses

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Greece has scrapped a law that made universities a no-go zone for police — a move critics have blasted as a clampdown on democracy.

The university sanctuary law was a legacy of a government crackdown in 1973 when a tank drove through the gates of the Athens Polytechnic, with dozens killed in the violence.

At the time Greece was under a military junta.

The law was established in 1982 and largely kept the police off university grounds, although the law has been repealed and reinstated by different governments since then.

It was reinstated most recently in 2017.

‘Basements full of petrol bombs and hoods’

The vote to get rid of the law is one of the first moves from the country’s conservative New Democracy government, which unseated left-wing Syriza.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis campaigned hard on the issue of public safety, while former prime minister Alexis Tsipras, now the main opposition leader, accused Mitsotakis of being “obsessed” with the universities issue.

“We don’t want police in university. We do want, though, to get rid of the hoodies who police the lives of students,” Mitsotakis told parliament, referring to self-styled anarchists.

The conservatives have long argued that university sanctuary law has outlived its purpose and has been hijacked by criminal elements.

“During a typical student’s life, he will see faculties controlled by a manner of different groups, drugs, and basements full of petrol bombs and hoods,” Mitsotakis said.

Deputy Education Minister Vassilis Digalakis said it is “not asylum that protects academic freedoms and the freedom of ideas ... but an institution which prohibits the free movement of ideas and the free movement of students in certain universities, and allows for illegal acts to take place”.

Greek universities have long complained of drug dealing on campus and self-styled anarchists who make petrol bombs at some faculties for their regular encounters with riot police, or use faculties as squats.

Panos Tsakloglou, a professor at the Athens University of Business and Economics, said he and his students were once turfed out of their classroom by a group who squatted it for the weekend.

“In addition, we have quasi-criminal activities that take place within universities ... Of course, police non-intervention means these activities are flourishing,” he said.

A few thousand students marched through Athens against repealing the law last week.

“I personally believe the free movement of ideas means that no institution of the state can intervene,” said student Theodoris Bourliaskos, 36.

Are universities in Europe sanctuaries?

There are similar cases to the Greek sanctuary law in other European countries, but none that go as far.

The Spanish constitution, in article 27.10, gives universities their own autonomy

Writing in El Diario, professor and author Víctor Alonso Rocafort explained that after the repression of the Franco dictatorship in Spain, “it was decided that university autonomy would protect the freedom of teachers to teach their subjects, but it would also leave university campuses free of police officers”.

“Only the academic authorities could allow, under exceptional conditions, the entrance of the police in the University. This would also mean admitting failure in their relationship with students and associations," he added.

However, according to a Spanish police information website, there is nothing prohibiting police from entering university grounds without the permission of the rector to apprehend a suspect or to stop criminal activity from taking place.

“If cars are being stolen from the parking lot, or a student is being abused in the cafeteria of the faculty, the police will intervene with or without the approval of the rector,” it states.

Meanwhile, in Poland, there is a general notion of the autonomy of universities.

Article 227.3 of the country's law on universities states: "State services responsible for maintaining public order and internal security can enter a university only when called by the rector. However, those services can enter on their own initiative in case of a direct threat to human life or a natural disaster, notifying the rector immediately about that."

Meanwhile, one university in the UK paid to have six police officers present on its newly-built campus in 2018.

To avoid cost to the tax-payer, Northampton University paid more than €800,000 for police officers to patrol the campus for three years.