'Macedonian patriot' faces trial in Athens clampdown: Human rights groups report a climate of fear among Greece's ethnic minority 'Slavs', writes Leonard Doyle

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A MACEDONIAN leader living in Greece is to be tried for 'spreading false information' in two weeks' time as a crackdown on political dissent within Greece continues.

The criminal trial of Hristos Sideropoulos, a 45-year-old forester from the country's northern border area, is part of an officially sanctioned policy of harassment of ethnic Macedonians living in the country, according to the organisation Human Rights Watch. Mr Sideropoulos has been tried on five occasions in the last four years and convicted several times for declaring that there were Macedonians in Greece and that they were routinely deprived of basic human rights.

Athens says that since 1949, 'there has been no Slav (Macedonian) minority in Greece and that the local language, which it calls a Bulgarian dialect, is spoken only by 'a very small group in Greece'. The ethnic Macedonian community in Greece is between 50,000 and 300,000 strong according to various estimates.

Mr Sideropoulos, who calls himself 'a Macedonian patriot', claims he and his family are constantly harassed by the Greek authorities for expressing their opinions.

'My telephone is tapped and I am followed by the secret police whenever I meet fellow Macedonian activists or outsiders,' he said in an interview.

''I am accused of being an agent of Skopje,' the capital of the neighbouring Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia against which Greece is fighting an economic and diplomatic war. Mr Sideropoulos, who is a controversial figure among Macedonian activists, says he comes from a long line of rebels against Greek rule.

'My maternal grandfather was a schoolteacher and activist who was hanged by his tongue by the Greeks in 1913 to terrorise people not to go to Macedonian schools,' he said.

He claims that his father was also tortured for siding with the Communists in the Greek civil war following the Second World War.

A spokesman for the Greek embassy in London said the prosecution of Mr Sideropoulos was a judicial affair and had nothing to do with the government. Despite being sentenced to five months in prison and fined for saying that they 'feel Macedonian', Mr Sideropoulos and another activist have not been jailed for their activities.

The latest trial of Mr Sideropoulos is troubling human rights activists, because of what they say is a continuing climate of fear among ethnic Macedonians living in Greece. The claim is made most forcefully by Human Rights Watch which in April published a report entitled Denying Ethnic Identity, The Macedonians in Greece. It accuses the Greek government of violating international law by its official denial of the existence of a Macedonian minority and language and for refusing to permit the performance of Macedonian folk songs and dances.

'Prosecuting people for the peaceful expression of their views, popular or unpopular, is forbidden under international human rights laws and agreements,' the report states.

The Greek government has also refused to allow its Macedonian population to open a cultural centre in northern Greece and has a longstanding ban on the Slavic-Macedonian language, which is spoken by many of its citizens, being taught in schools.

Human rights lawyers say the Greek government's stance violates the UN Declaration on Human Rights as well as other UN declarations on the rights of minorities.

A 1990 meeting of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) in Denmark, concluded that belonging to a national minority 'is a matter of a person's individual choice and no disadvantage may arise from the exercise of such choice' and that people should have the right 'freely to express preserve and develop their ethnic, cultural, linguistic identity . . . free of any attempts of assimilation against their will'.

Mr Sideropoulos is being tried for making what the Greeks consider to be inflammatory statements in Copenhagen at a fringe meeting at the CSCE conference. The public prosecutor, Ilias Costaras, said he violated the criminal code for saying that he 'belongs to a group of people that are deprived of their rights, even from the right of their name'.

For stating that 'he is a Macedonian and lives in Greek Macedonia, but does not have the right to express that or to use his language, to cherish his customs and traditions of his ancestors', Mr Sideropolous is to be tried under the criminal code.

The question of who can claim to be a Macedonian and who is the rightful descendant of Alexander the Great are of enormous political importance in Greece, which feels itself surrounded by hostile nations with claims on its territory.

By denying the existence of any minority group, except the Turkish community in Western Thrace, the government apparently hopes to extinguish any nationalist feeling among its ethnic Macedonian population.

The crackdown on dissenters and the policy of assimilation, which has continued with varying degrees of intensity for much of this century, has had a counterproductive effect since the break-up of former Yugoslavia. Two Macedonian human rights groups are active in the country, producing a samidzat monthly newspaper and organising protests.

The activists who run the organisations say they are subjected to constant surveillance by plainclothes officers and strip-searched when they cross the border to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

The US government has also raised concerns that academics who write about human rights and minority issues are at risk in Greece. The 1993 State Department country report said that scholars who question the government's line on Macedonia 'find it very difficult to pursue an academic career'.