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ATHENS – A months-long hunger strike led by a hired killer jailed for Greece’s deadliest terrorist group has fueled a vehement debate here over the rights of the convict, with street protests and a barrage of arson as the political struggle over it intensifies.

The hitman, Dimitris Koufodinas, 63, is serving 11 life sentences and began his hunger strike on January 8, after authorities rejected his request to be transferred from prison. He was imprisoned for his role in the activities of a far-left guerrilla group known as November 17, active from 1975 to 2002.

The group killed 23 people, including a CIA post chief in Athens, a British military attaché and several Greek businessmen, as well as Pavlos Bakoyannis, the brother-in-law of the current Conservative Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Mr Koufodinas had requested to be transferred from a prison in central Greece to Korydallos prison in Athens, where he was originally held in 2003 with other members on November 17. He was transferred to his current prison from a weak security facility in December. .

The Conservative government refused to give in, accusing the convict – who has successfully used hunger strikes in the past to assert his demands – of blackmail.

A statement released by Mr. Mitsotakis’s office on Saturday, shortly after doctors reported that Mr. Koufodinas’ health had seriously deteriorated, said the government would not allow “preferential treatment and violations. of the law”.

As the standoff escalated, Koufodinas’ lawyer Ioanna Kourtovik on Wednesday accused the government of vindictive and illegal tactics, saying she had filed a lawsuit to have her client’s sentence suspended. . “Her life is in danger,” she told Greek television.

The government’s hard line and the convict’s deteriorating health have drawn the attention of left-wing supporters and the Greek establishment.

As his hunger strike entered its 54th day on Tuesday, thousands of people gathered for his support in Athens for the second day in a row. The protests continued on Wednesday.

The police were in force after a wave of vandalism by anarchists expressing their solidarity with Mr. Koufodinas. Police stations in the capital have been bombarded with homemade incendiary bombs almost daily for the past two months.

The topic dominated social media in Greece. Several lawyers, academics and journalists have complained about the restriction of their Facebook accounts after posting photos of pro-Koufodinas rallies or expressing support for his rights.

The issue has divided Greek judges, with the country’s union calling on the government to reconsider its position as other judges insist on impartiality. However, relatives of the November 17 victims asked Mr. Koufodinas to end his hunger strike, saying it picked up painful memories.

Opposition parties called on the government to change course. The left-wing Syriza party warned that Greece “must not become the first European country in 40 years to have a dead hunger striker,” while the center-left Movement for Change urged not to transform the condemned as a “symbol of struggle”.

Nicknamed “poisoned hand” by the Greek media, Mr. Koufodinas is an unlikely martyr, never having expressed regret for his actions with November 17. The group’s name comes from the date in 1973 when Greece’s oppressive military dictatorship called off a student uprising against its regime. , killing 23 people.

Some terrorism experts fear the hunger strike could spark further violence because it galvanizes anti-establishment groups in Greece. “These groups are already recruiting new members,” said Mary Bossis, professor of international security at the University of Piraeus, near Athens.

In the event of her death, she said, “we may even see a resurgence of domestic terrorism.”

Ms Bossis attributed Mr Koufodinas’ impasse to the failure of Greek political parties to reach a consensus on how to fight terrorism and convicted terrorists.

Some opposition lawmakers have argued that a law passed by the Conservatives last year allowed a prison transfer. The government rejected this claim, criticizing the previous left-wing administration for being too lenient with Mr. Koufodinas, transferring him to a low-security agricultural prison in 2018, where he was granted several leaves.

“Since the 1970s, the parties have argued over how to fight terrorists instead of seeking consensus,” Bossis said. “We should never have reached this point.”

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