What A Beautiful Island And Blind Taxi Driver Say About Greek Hopes For Survival

With its blue waters and soft breezes, the island of Zante is the essence of a Greek paradise. It turns out it was also home to widespread scams of state benefits that help explain what is so deeply broken in modern Greece.

On Zante, seeing is believing (Anna Oates)
On Zante, seeing is believing (Anna Oates)
Benoît Vitkine

ZANTE - "But why do you want to talk about this? You should write about tourism instead!"

We've heard this one before, but Zante Island, with its 40,000 inhabitants and 500,000 summer visitors, indeed deserves the praise: the Ionian sea water is sometimes turquoise and sometimes deep blue, lined with fine-sand beaches and majestic cliffs. In the flowering mountain villages time follows the rhythm of men's conversations as they sip iced coffee. Fish restaurants on the waterfront, bell tower shadows stretching over stone houses, the Insomnia or Bad Boy clubs open all night to the delight of English and Russian tourists…

That's the post card. This winter, this island the Venetians dubbed "the Flower of the East" acquired a new, equally exotic nickname: "The Island of the Blind." On Mar. 19, Stelios Bozikis, the mayor of Zakynthos (Zante in Greek) convened television crews to confirm that the island was under investigation from the Greek Health Ministry. The reason was the abnormally high number of blind and visually impaired people: 682 people were receiving up to 325 euros in government benefits. Each. According to the World Health Organization, that's nine times the average in developed countries.

"I discovered this anomaly at the start of 2011, when the responsibility to distribute the benefits shifted from the prefecture to the town hall," says Mayor Bozikis. "I wrote to Athens, but in the central administration they were dragging their feet. I was afraid that they wanted to bury the story, so I made it public."

Keeping the silence

Who knew? Who were the blind people? In Zakynthos, restaurant owners shrug their shoulders; shopkeepers urge you to ponder instead the mores of the turtles that are famous on the island; and the old people holding their rosaries in the port are indignant that everybody - both "real" and "fake" blind people - was sent to the continent to take new eye exams.

The Island of the Blind seems to have become mute, and those most directly concerned have somehow all disappeared. "The people here were taken aback by the way all of Greece pointed its finger at them," says Spiros Betsis, a local television journalist. "We all felt collectively punished."

The control tests ordered by the Health Ministry yielded their results at the end of June, and only fifty or so blind and visually impaired people will get their benefits back. The others will have to pay back past benefits, and risk going to prison. The legal investigation and the testimonies paint the picture of a smoothly running operation that has probably been in place since 1998.

To get the benefits, the claimant had to obtain two stamps: one from the island's only ophthalmologist, who worked at the public hospital, and one from the prefect, who has an administrative function but is elected by popular vote. The former put down his signature in exchange for 500 to 2,000 euros, the latter allegedly exchanged his stamp for guarantees of the votes of the beneficiaries and of their families. A summary of Greece's woes, where petty corruption is rivaled only by voter manipulation.

Greek and international organization reports rank public hospitals as one of the most corrupt institutions. According to Transparency International, it is where 42% of bribes are dealt out, more than for taxes (16%). Amounts vary from 30 euros to cut a line to 30,000 euros for certain surgical operations. Athens has grappled with the problem only recently, though cases like Zante's regularly make headlines: there are the Cephalonia Island amputees, the Thessalonica handicapped, the Viota region asthmatics…

Some doctors were collared, like the gynecologists who diagnosed asthma and depression. In Zante, the ophthalmologist is hesitant before he accepts an interview over the phone. Nikos Varzelis says it's a "political conspiracy" led by the mayor and swears that he wanted to "help the poor, without receiving any money."

Dyonisis Gasparos, the prefect, refuses to comment. In a local newspaper, this urologist, candidate for the right in the legislative elections on June 17, had explained that he "simply signed the certificates sent by the expert." It is only in Gasparos' home village of Keri on the southern edge of the island that people start to talk. Here, in the prefect's stronghold, there are 48 "blind" people for 630 inhabitants. Including the most famous swindler, a taxi driver, in close competition with a bird hunter.

"I want my children to grow up in a normal country.."

How to recognize them? There isn't a white cane in sight…On the beach at the foot of the village, the owner of the Rock Café wants to talk: "Because I work from dawn till dusk and I want my children to grow up in a normal country," says Hristos Vatos. "Poor people weren't the only ones who got the benefits, there were also café owners, prosperous farmers and even a hotel owner who had a pension for his heart while his wife had one for her blindness."

Mr. Vatos says it's easy to meet some of the fraudulent beneficiaries. He takes his phone and says a few words but takes it away from his ear as someone yells louder and louder into the receiver. "That wasn't a good idea," he says. How did these fake blind people react to the scandal? "Some were ashamed, but most weren't: they had found a good scheme in a period where no one has money." Did he know who they were? "We had doubts, no more."

"We are in a village, of course everybody knew!" says his neighbor Giorgos Kiourkas, who runs a boat rental. "Here, tricking the State is a source of pride, it means we're smarter than them." He doesn't have any names to give either - that's another thing you don't do on this island. The mayor has the same analysis. "People accused me of discrediting the island, but most people are starting to understand that fraud is serious, it's one of the things that ruined this country."

Read more from Le Monde in French.

Photo - Anna Oates

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Running of the Bulls in Tafalla, northern Spain

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здравейте!*

Welcome to Monday, where an apparent coup is underway in Sudan, Colombia's most-wanted drug lord gets caught, and Michael Jordan's rookie sneakers score an auction record. We also focus on a report that the Thai government is abusing the country's centuries-old law to protect the monarchy from criticism (lèse-majesté) to target pro-democracy activists and protesters.

[*Zdraveite - Bulgarian]


• Developing: Sudan leaders arrested amid military coup reports: Soldiers have arrested several members of Sudan's transitional government as well as civilian leaders, and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok has reportedly been put under house arrest, in what the information ministry called a military coup. Pro-democracy protesters have taken to the streets of the capital city Khartoum where there are reports of gunfire and clashes.

• Colombia's most wanted drug lord to be sent to U.S.: Colombia's most dangerous drug trafficker, known as Otoniel, was caught after a joint army, air force and police operation and faces extradition to the U.S. He led the country's largest criminal gang, and was on the U.S. most wanted list for years.

• Xi speech marks China's UN anniversary: China's President Xi Jinping marked the 50th anniversary of Beijing's entry into the United Nations with a speech calling for greater global cooperation, adding that issues like climate change, terrorism and cyber security needed multilateral solutions. Taiwan was not mentioned.

• German ISIS bride jailed for crimes against humanity: A German court has sentenced a German woman and former member of the Islamic State to 10 years in prison for letting a 5-year-old Yazidi enslaved girl die of thirst in Iraq. The case is one of the world's first trials to prosecute a war crime against the Yazidis.

• COVID update: The Beijing marathon scheduled next weekend has been postponed until further notice as China seeks to stamp out Delta variant outbreak and return to zero cases ahead of the Winter Olympics next February. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in Eastern Europe have surpassed the 20 million mark as the region fights against its worst outbreak since the pandemic started and vaccination efforts lag.

Goodbye, Gunther: U.S. actor James Michael Tyler, best known for his role as the barista Gunther on the TV show Friends, has died at 59 of prostate cancer.

• Sneakers record: A pair of Michael Jordan's white-and-red Nike shoes, which he wore during his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls in 1984, sold for $1.47 million — a new record price for sneakers at auction.


"The end of a boss," titles Colombian daily El Espectador, reporting on the arrest of drug lord Dairo Antonio Usuga, known as Otoniel, who had led Colombia's largest criminal gang and had been on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's most wanted list for years. He was captured in a raid and will be extradited to the U.S.



A Georgia man is being prosecuted for wire fraud after spending most of his business's COVID relief loan to buy one Pokémon trading card for $57,789.


How Thailand's "Lèse-Majesté" law is used to stifle all protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

👑 Thailand's Criminal Code "Lèse-Majesté" Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family. But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

🚨 The recent report "Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand," documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations." The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

💻 The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them. Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind.

➡️


"Children are going to die. People are going to starve."

— The United Nations warns that Afghanistan verges on a "total breakdown" as millions of Afghans, including children, could die of starvation unless urgent action is taken by the international community. The agency calls for the release of frozen assets to avoid economic and social collapse, despite concerns over the Taliban government. A recent report said that about 97% of Afghanistan's population may sink below the poverty line, and World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley warned that more than half of Afghanistan's population of 39 million were facing acute food insecurity and "marching to starvation" in comparison to 14 million two months ago.


Dutch cities have been secretly probing mosques since 2013

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talked to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more Chicago Bulls or running of the bulls? Let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!!

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