Trial over killing of HIV activist begins in Greece

Athens (AFP) –


Three years after a prominent Greek-American HIV activist was beaten to death in Athens, six people will appear in court on Wednesday in what Greece's LGBTQ community sees as an important trial for gay rights in the country.

The six defendants -- including four police officers -- face up to 10 years in prison for the violent death of 33-year-old Zacharias Kostopoulos on September 21, 2018 in a rundown part of central Athens.

The long-awaited trial had barely started in October 2020 when it was interrupted by procedural issues related to anti-coronavirus measures.

Kostopoulos, known by his artistic name "Zak / Zackie Oh", was an HIV-positive drag queen and advocate for the rights of LGBTQ and other HIV-positive people.

According to a video posted on social media at the time, he was first beaten by two men, including the owner of a jewellery store in which Kostopoulos had found himself locked in circumstances that are not clear.

Disoriented, he attempted to escape by smashing through the glass storefront, cutting himself and suffering kicks to the head from the owner and a neighbour.

Believing him to be a burglar, police officers arriving at the scene also beat and handcuffed him as he lay bleeding on the pavement, the video showed.

He was pronounced dead a few hours later at the hospital.

- 'Lynching' -

According to the autopsy report, Kostopoulos suffered "an ischaemic myocardial infarction (heart failure) following serious injuries," his family's lawyer Anna Paparoussou told AFP.

"After three years, this trial must demonstrate to the victim's family and to society what justice really means," Paparoussou said, denouncing the fact that the defendants were "still roaming free".

All six men face the same charge of causing "fatal bodily harm", but Kostopoulos' family wants the men to be charged with homicide.

The trial is set to start at 9:00 am (0600 GMT) before a panel of three judges and four jury members.

A Facebook group, Justice for Zackie, has called for a demonstration outside the courthouse on the first day of the trial.

After his death, a book titled "Zak / Zackie Oh" was published, drawing on Kostopoulos' personal texts and images, which contrasted his introverted private life with his extravagant drag queen alter ego.

Amnesty International described Kostopoulos' death as a "lynching" and "assassination" and pointed to homophobic bias in some of the early Greek media reports about the case.

Amnesty International described Kostopoulos' death as a "lynching" and "assassination"
Amnesty International described Kostopoulos' death as a "lynching" and "assassination" Aris MESSINIS AFP

And in a statement Tuesday, Amnesty denounced the "stigmatisation, the prejudice and the hateful rhetoric" with which Kostopoulos and his family "have often been confronted, even after Zak's death".

Homophobic attacks are not uncommon in Greece, where the powerful Greek Orthodox Church officially disapproves of homosexual relations and the civil union of same-sex couples was only approved by parliament in 2015.

Defence attorneys for the police argue that the charge of mortal injury is different to actual murder.

Petty crime is rife in the area where the killing occurred, and the jewellery store owner later claimed he had already been burgled three times in the past, and thought Kostopoulos was armed.

"I did it out of outrage... I didn't want the boy to die, I have children his age," he said in early testimony, according to media reports.

The police officers' legal team previously included former far-right politician, Thanos Plevris, who is the son of a prominent Greek Holocaust denier and was appointed as minister for health a few weeks ago.