Obituary: Minos Kokkinakis

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The Independent Culture
MINOS KOKKINAKIS was no stranger to Greek prisons. As a Jehovah's Witness who refused to give up what he saw as his duty to try to convert his fellow citizens, an offence under Greek law, he was first sentenced in 1938. In all he would be arrested more than 60 times, tried 18 times and spend a combined total of six and a half years in prison.

But his case became a cause celebre when, in May 1993, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that his right to religious freedom had been violated and awarded him damages of 3.5m drachmas (some pounds 10,000). "The 50 years of persecution was worth going through for this historic moment," Kokkinakis declared.

The landmark judgement, known as Kokkinakis v Greece, was frequently cited in similar cases of proselytism in Greece, leading to acquittals not just of Jehovah's Witnesses but of Pentecostal Christians and even a Buddhist.

Kokkinakis became a Jehovah's Witness in his twenties. In 1938 he was the first Jehovah's Witness in Greece to be arrested for violating the law against proselytism which had just been enacted under pressure from the Greek Orthodox Church by the government of the dictator Ioannis Metaxas.

Manolis Lionoudakis, a former teacher who had been sentenced to a year's exile on the Aegean island of Amorgos for preaching the new faith, recalled: "After I had been there for six months, suddenly a man named Kokkinakis arrived from Crete. I had spoken the truth to him back there. He had been interested, and now here he was, being exiled for his new convictions!" Lionoudakis baptised Kokkinakis in the sea.

Further short sentences followed in 1939 and in 1940. During the Second World War, Kokkinakis was incarcerated in the military prison in Athens for more than 18 months. He later recalled: "The lack of food in the prison went from bad to worse. We became so weak that we could not walk. If it had not been for the Witnesses from the Athens and Piraeus areas who provided us with food from their depleted means, we would have died."

He was again sentenced in 1947 and in 1949, when he was exiled to the notorious prison island of Makronisos. He was among 40 Jehovah's Witnesses in a prison housing 14,000. "The soldiers, like members of the Inquisition, would interrogate each inmate from morning till evening. Words fail to describe the tortures they inflicted. Many prisoners lost their sanity; others were killed; a great number were left physically disabled. During those terrible nights while we heard the cries of those being tortured, we would pray as a group."

After surviving the hardships of Makronisos, Kokkinakis was arrested 10 more times in the 1950s and 1960s for proselytism, one of hundreds of Jehovah's Witnesses to be imprisoned on such charges.

The case that was eventually ruled on by the European Court in 1993 dated back to March 1986, when Kokkinakis and his wife Elissavet visited a home in Sitia on Crete, where they apparently tried to convert a woman whose husband was the cantor at a local Orthodox church. He informed the police, who arrested the couple. They were charged with proselytism and sentenced in the criminal court of Lasithi to four months' imprisonment. The court declared that the defendants had intruded "on the religious beliefs of Orthodox Christians . . . by taking advantage of their inexperience, their low intellect and their naivety".

The Crete Court of Appeal later acquitted Elissavet but upheld her husband's conviction, although it reduced his prison sentence to three months. Kokkinakis persisted in his challenge to the ruling and after the Greek Supreme Court dismissed his appeal in April 1988 he took his case to the European Court. The petition was eventually accepted in February 1992 and the case was heard the following November in his presence. One of the nine judges declared that Kokkinakis had been convicted "only for having shown such zeal, without any impropriety on his part".

At his funeral service, one of his lawyers, Thanassis Reppas, told the large crowd: "Kokkinakis was the first person convicted for proselytism and he is the one who finally took this law to the grave."

Minos Kokkinakis, shopkeeper: born Sitia, Crete 25 February 1909; married (five children); died Sitia 28 January 1999.