Paying for it
In Greek crisis, priest buys inmates’ freedom
In this Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014 Father Gervasios holds up a letter, in Arabic, copies of which are handed out to all prisoners his charity frees, in their own language, explaining why they receive the help in the northern port city of Thessaloniki. The soft-spoken 83-year-old with a long white beard and black robes has helped more than 15,000 convicts secure their freedom over nearly four decades, according to records kept by his charity. The Greek rules apply only to people convicted of offences that carry a maximum five-year sentence, such as petty fraud, bodily harm, weapons possession, illegal logging, resisting arrest and minor drugs offences. (AP Photo/Nikolas Giakoumidis)
In this photo released by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, Nuon Chea, who was the Khmer Rouge's chief ideologist and No. 2 leader, sits in the courtroom of a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. Three and a half decades after the genocidal rule of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge ended, the U.N.-backed tribunal on Thursday sentenced Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, two top leaders of the former regime, to life in prison for crimes against humanity during the country's 1970s terror period that left close to 2 million people dead. (AP Photo/Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, Mark Peters)
THESSALONIKI, Greece — In Greek justice, money talks in a different way: Some inmates jailed for minor offences are allowed to buy their freedom — at an average rate of five euros per day.
With the rich at a clear advantage, Greek Orthodox priest Gervasios Raptopoulos has devoted his life to paying off the prison terms of penniless inmates.
The soft-spoken 83-year-old with a long white beard and black robes has helped more than 15,000 convicts secure their freedom over nearly four decades, according to records kept by his charity. The Greek rules apply only to people convicted of offenses that carry a maximum five-year sentence, such as petty fraud, bodily harm, weapons possession, illegal logging, resisting arrest and minor drugs offences. His work, however, is getting harder.
Gervasios, 83, has seen his charity’s funds, which all come from private donations, plummet in Greece’s financial crisis. And there has been a sharp rise in inmates who can’t afford to pay their way out of prison.
“Where people would offer $135, they now give $67. But that doesn’t stop us,” he told The Associated Press in an interview.
The crisis, which has worsened already hellish prison conditions, makes his efforts even more pressing.
“Our society rejects inmates and pushes them into the margins,” he said. “People often say: ‘It serves them right.’”
While behind bars, inmates also need money to buy necessities such as toilet paper and soap when the often meagre supplies provided by prisons run out. Gervasios helps them, too, either with cash or handouts.
Gervasios’ charity allocates up to $675 for each prisoner they help, but the amount needed varies. Sometimes a small sum goes a long way.
“Once, we gave a man 8.5 euros, which was what he lacked to gain his freedom,” he said.
“But in exceptional cases we have gone over our limit, giving up to $13,500 for one prisoner. He was ill and had many children.”
Gervasios is now officially retired from the priesthood — allowing him to travel regularly to all of Greece’s 34 penitentiaries. He tours about once a month to hand out gift bags with clothing, a religious icon and toiletry items such as shaving materials, soap, shampoo and toothpaste.
Former inmates frequently turn up at the charity headquarters on the outskirts of Playiari. Some repay the money they received. Other, still in need of help, receive food handouts.
“I went to prison because I was selling bread rings without a license,” said 60-year-old ex-inmate Dimitris Germanidis. “He paid the fine, and bought off my sentence and so I walked free. ... He helped without knowing me, he didn’t even know who the money was going to.”