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ART & CRIME

Issue 1 - September 2010


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The profile of a famous greek criminal through the eye of a camera, the lyrics of a song and his autobiography

by Fotios Spyropoulos
PhD Candidate, Lawyer - Penologist - Criminologist,
 Center for Penal and Criminological Research
 
 
"Nikos, what have you done?"

(lyric from the song "To makry zeibekiko gia ton Niko" by D. Savopoulos)


Outside the “Evelpidon” Criminal and Civil court of Athens, during the week, and at the flea market in Monastiraki on weekends, an old man, dressed always in brown or black, and wearing a Russian hat, sells his biography...

He is Nikos Koemtzis. He has killed three people and stabbed seven more, all because he wanted to dance to a song he had "ordered" from the musicians. He killed for a "Parangelia" (an order for a song).

He transferred the story of his life to a book - "To makry (Long) zeibekiko [1]”. Dionysis Savvopoulos (a famous Greek singer-songwriter) read the book and turned it into a song. Pavlos Tassios (a well known Greek director) heard the song and made a film. Today Nikos Koemtzis, his past behind him, sells his story to make a living.

But let us take start at the beginning…

Nikos was a petty, small-time criminal, born in a poverty-stricken part of Pieria [2], and persecuted from a young age for his left-wing political beliefs. His wanderings in a time of poverty and political persecution in Greece lead him to Thessaloniki [3], where he held various jobs, before moving on to Athens. He flirts with the underworld and illegality and goes to prison for the first time in 1967-68.

The actors Antonis Kafetzopoulos and George Kotanidis in a scene from the film of Pavlos Tassios "Parangelia”
In February 1973, during the dictatorship in Greece- and having just been released – he goes to a live-music nightclub (the bouzouki hall "Neraida"), with his younger brother Demosthenes and some friends. Demosthenes makes an order for a song  to the orchestra; he requests a zeibekiko, a dance meant to be performed by one person, and gets up to dance.  An "unwritten rule" of the times was that only the patron who made the order could dance. Three police officers, however, who were at the nightclub, and knew very well whose brother was dancing – interfere during his performance by dancing simultaneously. There is an altercation, and the police officers start beating Demosthenes. "It is an order (parangelia)!"  shouted an incensed Nikos; who drew his stiletto: 3 policemen killed and 7 others wounded... He was sentenced to death and spent years awaiting execution ( he was on death row for 3 years). Eventually Koemtzis will be sentenced for life and in 1996 he was granted a grace. He remained in prison for 23 years.

 
"To makry (Long) zeibekiko [1]" - The book

In prison he starts to read and learn to write. Nikos Koemtzis started, using his limited vocabulary to record his life-story in order to give material to his lawyer for his defense in court. His prose has a genuine "popular" flavour - without exaggeration, and his narration brings to mind the famous Greek general Makriyannis [4].

He describes his life as a child. A story of great poverty, possibly the worst that could be experienced in an already damaged post-War provincial economy of Greece at the time. Nikos Koemtzis presents himself as a contemporary ‘Oliver Twist’ – although he almost certainly had never read the book by Charles Dickens! His father was declared a communist because he had taken to the mountains with the (Communist) EAM-ELAS brigades. In 1945 the "gendarmes" savagely beat Nikos’ father in front of the children, as well as their grandfather, a handicap from the war of 1913. Since then, Nikos Koemtzis detested anyone in a uniform, as he says himself. His father enters prison as a political prisoner during the Civil War and after his release the large family lives constantly on the move; persecuted "from village to village”, doing agricultural work to earn their livelihood.

Poverty leads him to Thessaloniki where he spends his adolescence doing various jobs (he writes that because he was "sharp” and a “hustler", he managed to become the best "grocer" in the market). Later, in 1958, he descends to the capital. He is engaged but the engagement is dissolved because of police harassment troubles his fiancée’s respectable family, and because he won’t accept becoming a police ‘snitch’.

His employer does not pay his wages; Koemtzis “sues” him (he probably meant a law suit), yet the court case is constantly deferred. Koemtzis faces a lot of problems; he is forced to rob the man and is sent to prison. There he is subjected to physical and psychological torture (let us not forget this occurred during the period of dictatorship), and just a few years later, his case will serve the most apt confirmation of the motto that "violence breeds violence”.

In the second part of the book Nikos Koemtzis first describes his pre-trial incarceration in the Korydallos Prison Complex in Athens, and his meeting with his brother and a friend, who had also fallen ‘victim’ to the fatal stabbing. Koemtzis’ health is very poor; he has difficulty walking from the bullets shot into his legs by the police during his arrest; it was thought that he would remain disabled for life. He asks his companions to recall the events of that evening, because he himself does not remember anything. In this way he reconstructs the "accident" (as he calls it) of that night:

The actor Antonis Antoniou (as Nikos Koemtzis) is screaming  "!" (scene from the film of Pavlos Tassios "Parangelia”)

"... a thousand thoughts were spinning through my mind. I was looking for a solution to restore the wrong thing I had done ... I suffered terribly and tried desperately to pick out a picture of the massacre, and I could not. And even now I cannot, even though I still struggle to... It seems that whilst I was sowing death, mindlessly, like a robot, I was occupied by the demon or the beast that nests inside me....

And here begins his description of prison and the penal system in general (in a time not so long ago): "In prison you meet all types of characters, the sensitive ones and the numbed ones. Most of the sensitive ones search to find a lifeline. The numbed ones have resigned themselves to a hopeless existence, spending their days engaged with sinister intent. They are like animals, and most of them look to turning any youngster dropped into prison for the first time, like them: immoral and depraved, with no respect for human dignity. In a word, they are pimps, snitches, paedophiles; they carry all the evil of the world upon them.

That is why the Ministry of Justice should not keep recidivist offenders and first-timers together...".

In his book "To makry zeibekiko” (it is the title of autobiography; a zeibekiko he never danced, yet one that lasted for so many years), Nick Koemtzis continues with his account of the trial. The media portray him as a bloodthirsty beast, and thereafter take to baptizing any dangerous criminals as "Koemtzides". We, once again (personal experiences in the courts aside), discern the distance between the real facts and that was claimed during the hearing. His plea, where he assumes full responsibility for the crimes, makes an impression on the court...

Perhaps the most shocking part of the book is his description of life as a condemned man in the "house of pain" (the prison) at Halicarnassus in Crete [5]. Koemtzis is detained in solitary confinement; a filthy, living grave. His only contact is with his jailers and occasional prisoner-snitches, put into adjacent cells by the police to "check his behavior." He waits day after day for his execution (One day an abbot came to visit – as he saw the priests he thought his time had come). In Greeces dictatorship at the time, there was no recognition or importance assigned to “death row phenomenon / syndrome”: the intense anxiety and fear experienced by the subject; the laborious, time consuming procedure that comprises (according to the subsequent ruling of the ECHR - see Soering vs UK), inhumane and degrading treatment that contravenes directive 3 of the ECHR. In any case, the political resolve had already been made: whilst the ECHR had been ratified by Greek country under Law 2329 of 1953, during the 1967 - 1974 dictatorship (when the trial and conviction of Nikos Koemtzis took place), the country withdrew from the Council of Europe in order to forestall its impending dismissal, and in doing so ceased to be a member of the ECHR. After the restoration of democracy, Greece re-ratified the ECHR under legislative decree 53/1974 and rejoined the Council of Europe (see St. Matthias, C. Ktistakis, L. Stavritis, K. Stefanakis; The Protection of Human Rights in Europe; Athens Bar Association , Athens; 2006, p.26 – in Greek)

In his cell, he writes poems, the only way to ward off insanity. He tries to imprint on paper his countless thoughts ... The most dramatic is the scene where he removed alone a bullet from his leg that had been left there since his arrest (the prison doctor did not pay him any attention!)

The book closes with a spare epilogue: "... In March 1977 three wardens announced to me that I had been spared death, saying: "The state has been compassionate. Now it is up to you to become better." I replied that I could only become worse, not better. Finally, the Ministry of Justice ordered my transfer from prison in Heraklion, Crete, to a worst prison (a hell prison)  in Corfu. I was in hell from July 21, 1976 to 1982. ..
.
... I was released on March 29, 1996”.

The approach for reviewing this work lies somewhere between artistic and criminological criticism. The criminological value of the book is indisputable. The study of a criminal autobiography – a practice adopted by the ecological Chicago School - can lead us to valuable conclusions about the reasoning and importance given in the perpetrator’s own words when describing his actions, and in observing the moral code he follows. The analysis of criminological phenomena through the eyes of the offender may help practitioners to analyze and propose improved prevention policies. In addition, through the study of this autobiography we uncover - page by page - a materializing of the theories of social reaction based on the "self-fulfilling prophecy" of the label or stereotype (see K. D. Spinellis; Criminology, Contemporary and Past Directions; 2nd edition; Sakkoulas Publications, Athens-Komotini; 2005, pp.275-278 – in Greek), and the importance of social responsibility involved in the creation of the offender, through the process of passage à l acte.
 
 

"To makry zeibekiko gia ton Niko Long" - the song

Dionysis Savvopoulos (a famous Greek singer/songwriter) [6], after reading "To makry zeibekiko", wrote the lyrics and melody for the song. The Zeimpekiko which takes about 13’30’’ is a slow, drawn out song with unique lyrics which  describe vividly the story of Nick Koemtzis life.

Some lyrics...

There is no hope, I do not ask for freedom, but justice;
 […]
The dance floor emptied, two policemen remain, dancing, turning their backs to him.
The boy shoves them away, crying “This is my song!"
They threw him onto the glass strewn floor, he screamed as they dragged him
[…]

this horrific attraction
with such violence that it is impossible to say what happened down there.
The tragedy occurred around, I would say…

Nikos, from what kin have you come
Nikos, what have you done?
[…]

The trial was held on a wild November…
The press presented him openly, no less, as a bloodthirsty beast.
[…]

 


he murder (scene from the film of Pavlos Tassios "Parangelia”)

The entire biography of Nikos Koemtzis in a song. References to the life of the erstwhile murderer, enriched with surrealistic imagery (eg detachment from the madness). As Nikos Koemtzis told his life story [on deaf ears], he thought he couldn’t bear it. [The court was conferred in that place, but justice was left outside.]


Savvopoulos first depicts images of horror/insanity. Every four lines he resumes Koemtzi’s own narration in an attempt to converse with him, understand him (but not to justify him).

With this song, that was not commercially successful because of its duration and content, Dionysis Savvopoulos gives form to the saying of the famous Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza ( 1632-1677) "rather than deride, pity or curse human actions, I have taken pains to understand them".
 
 
 
"Parangelia" - the movie
 
 
In 1980 the director Pavlos Tassios finds in the crime of Koemtzi inspiration for his film. He brings to the cinematographic big screen the murder of that dreadful day in a movie called "Parangelia (a song order)."

The cast of the film includes the elite of the greek acting community. Finally, while Katerina Gogos [7] plays a leading role in the recounting of the incident - as narrator - her poems expressing the raison d’etre of the film.

Pavlos Tasios’ screenplay evolves in real time with some flashbacks of the lethal scene while the history is interrupted by the narration of Katerina Gogos. The film begins (and ends as well) with the solemn faces of people we encounter every day - the protagonist is one of them, one of us. Then follows the scene where the bouzouki hall is preparing to open for business as usual... only this night will be different…

The second part of the film is a presentation of the police arrest. One of the top moments of the film is the cry of "parangelia!" before the star rushes into the dance floor with his knife drawn, and also the scene of the arrest "aim well ... kill me and cleanse society ... Not in the legs ..."

Throughout the film we do not hear Koemtzis referred to by name. Indeed, Tasiou’s script is a dramatised version of the facts, and for that reason it does not accurately reflect the events of that night. Nor was it his intention... The political ramifications of the story are unclear. The movie can be seen as a mosaic of human pain and humiliation. Koemtzis became a symbol of courage.

Tasioss film would have excited little interest and meaning if he simply staged a reenactment of the crime in a documentaristic style. The director has said of his objectives: "I am with him in as much as they did not allow him to speak freely and his 

The arrest (scene from the film of Pavlos Tassios "Parangelia”)

repressed nature revolted" wishing to distance his film from any further identification with the offender. And this is precisely the essence of the project. The question is posed as what society and circumstances could lead a man to behave like this: the Greece of the junta, with political and artistic repression, social inequalities, political convictions, torture, murder and social oppression, which does not allow collective modes of expression and nurtures, therefore, violent and criminal outbursts. "Prison inside and prison outside;” in one sentence, the actor has captured the whole of society’s malaise of the times (as well as his own)...

Katerina Gogos presence acts as a catalyst; she appears chanting her poems whilst dancing, crying, and shouting. In her poems she churns reality around her and takes a clear political stance. Poems which unfortunately can be timeless wherever there is any kind of margin. Poems that few have thought until now to analyze:

"... And when her blood is squeezed and won’t hold any more,
for selling out her kind,
 dancing zeibekiko barefoot on the tables
 holding in her bruised hands a sharpened axe
THE SOLITUDE
THE SOLITUDE I TELL YOU,
 OUR OWN I TELL YOU,
IT IS AN AXE IN OUR HANDS
THAT RISES ABOVE OUR HEADS
TURNING, TURNING, TURNING, TURNING, TURNING, TURNING, TURNING, TURNING, TURNING ...

The soundtrack of the film incorporated these poems, and was released on a record (EMI-1981) entitled: “Sto dromo (on the street)" and won the award for best music at the Thessaloniki Film Festival in 1980 where the film took a total of five awards.

 
Epilogue

Nikos Koemtzis killed and served the sentence imposed on him by the State for those crimes. Any attempt at glorifying the perpetrators of such crimes falls on deaf ears, even if this man’s story has inspired art. Perhaps then, should we come into contact with such works, we should be considering questions of how one is born a criminal and possibly what social responsibility applies in these cases. So whilst the offender is “disciplined” in serving his sentence, so should society be concerned when one of its own rejects it by resorting to crime. And whilst the above works were reviewed as primarily cultural artifacts, there can be no doubt their usefulness to criminological analysis, with much to offer towards the development of a social dialogue, an understanding of the criminal phenomenon and ultimately towards its prevention.
 
 
 
 
 

Translator Footnotes:

[1] Zeibekiko is considered a folk improvisational dance from Greece with a rhythmic pattern of 9/8or else 9/4. Zeibekiko is common in Greece and areas around the world with large Greek populations. Throughout history it has been known as an intensely personal dance where people can express their individuality. Only one man at a time may dance it. If another got up, it would be a cause for conflict and possible violence.  Traditionally, applause was not sought nor commonly given, out of respect.

[2] Pieria is a prefecture of Southern Macedonia in Greece. Its capital is the town of Katerini. Pieria is the smallest prefecture within Macedonia.

[3] Thessaloniki, Thessalonica, or Salonica is the second-largest city in Greece and the capital of the Macedonia region.

[4] General Yannis Makriyannis (1797–1864) was a Greek merchant, military officer, politician and author, best known today for his Memoirs. Starting from humble origins, he joined the Greek struggle for independence, achieving the rank of general and leading his men to notable victories. Following Greek independence, he had a tumultuous public career, playing a prominent part in the granting of the first Constitution of the Kingdom of Greece and later being sentenced to death and pardoned. Despite his important contributions to the political life of the early Greek state, general Makriyannis is mostly remembered for his Memoirs. Aside from being a source of historical and cultural information about the period, this work has also been called a "monument of Modern Greek literature". It should be noted that Makriyannis had received only the most basic and fragmentary education, and, according to his own testimony, mastered writing shortly before he started writing his Memoirs, while stationed in Argos.

[5] The prison of Nea Alikarnassos (New Halicarnassus) is located on the Greek island of Crete, in the municipality of the same name in the Heraklion Prefecture. Nea Alikarnassos was founded in 1925 as a public housing development to accommodate the refugees, who were displaced following the Asia Minor Disaster. The prison is quite old and the facilities have been neglected over years. This prison served the last judicial execution on 25/8/1972.

[6] Dionysis Savvopoulos is a Greek music composer, lyricist and singer. He was born in Thessaloniki. In 1963 he moved to Athens, terminating his law studies in favor of his career in music. He met great success from his early days as a musician and soon became very popular, both in Greece and abroad. Savvopoulos has been noted for being politically active throughout his career in music. In 1967, Savvopoulos was imprisoned for his political convictions by the Greek military junta of 1967-1974, led by the dictator George Papadopoulos. Most of his songs are written by himself (both lyrics and music).

[7] Katerina Gogos was a Greek actress and poet. She was born in Athens during the Nazi occupation of the country. Before her suicide in 1993 Katerina was featured in over thirty Greek films.

Emeritus Professor Calliope Spinellis
 
"Today, there are several well-qualified criminologists in Greece".


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JOURNAL "SOCIAL SCIENCES"

Constanteion - Centre of Criminology & Psychology Researches

Federation of Prison Officers

Professor Nestor Courakis

Ministry of Citizen Protection

I feel safe

Ministry of Justice, Transparency and Human Rights

Hellenic Supreme Court of Civil and Penal Law

ex-offenders

Professor Giannis Panousis

Centre for Psychoanalytic Research

Sector of Criminal Sciences - Faculty of Law - National & Kapodistrian University of Athens

Association of greek criminologists - Panteion University

Centre of Social Research - Technological Education Institute of Messolonghi

Sector of Criminology - Panteion University

Sector of Penal and Criminological Sciences - Faculty of Law - Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

European Court of Human Rights - Search Portal

Hellenic League for Human Rights

Marangkopoulos Foundation for Human Rights

Faculty of Law - National & Kapodistrian University of Athens

Centre for Penal and Criminological Research

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