Athens, Greece – A political dispute in Greece over a controversial arms deal with Saudi Arabia is deepening, with opposition politicians and critics decrying plans to sell 66m euros ($78.7m) worth of surplus missiles and bombs to the Arab Gulf country.
Opposition politicians have accused the government, which is currently headed by the leftist Syriza party, of not following the proper procedures for an international agreement, while critics have decried selling weapons to a country engaged in war.
Saudi Arabia is currently leading a coalition of countries waging war in neighbouring Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab region.
Legislators from New Democracy, the centre-right opposition party, claim that Defence Minister Panos Kammenos, illegally employed a private broker to negotiate the terms of the agreement with Saudi Arabia, a charge the defence minister denies.
Greek law stipulates that such agreements must be handled by government officials.
New Democracy has previously called for Kammenos to resign over the deal, saying in a statement that “provocative” agreement was executed “without a trace of transparency”.
During a heated debate in the Greek parliament on Monday, New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis called for an investigation into the arms deal and the alleged role of a private broker.
In response, Alexis Tsipras, prime minister, accused New Democracy and a “media lobby” of using the deal to unfairly target the government.
Tsipras claimed the broker, Greek national Vassilis Papadopoulos, was procured by Saudi Arabia, an assertion that country has previously denied in media statements.
Meanwhile, the deal has also prompted internal objections from a handful of Syriza members, such as legislator Giorgos Kyritsis, who argued that Greece should not sell weapons to Saudi Arabia on political and moral grounds.
“The legal objections are a spin by New Democracy, and they won’t get anywhere with it,” he told Al Jazeera, “but political part of the story is that we shouldn’t sell arms to countries that may use them in wars, especially when there are situations with violations of human rights.”
Kyritsis said: “Me and [some] other members of Syriza think that it would be better if we scrap this deal because there is no reason for us – even if we need the money – to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia … They could be used against Yemenis.”
At the time of publication, Nikos Voutsis, president of the Hellenic Parliament [the parliament of Greece], and Kammenos had not replied to Al Jazeera’s requests for a comment.
War in Yemen
The US and the UK have supported the Saudi government as it continues to lead a coalition of countries blockading and bombing Yemen, where it says it is fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Last week, the Saudi-led coalition said it would ease its air-tight blockade of Yemen.
More than 8,600 people have been killed and 49,960 injured during the ongoing war in Yemen, which started in March 2015, according to the United Nations. Of the total number of deaths, 60 percent are civilians.
More than 20 million Yemenis – among them 11 million children – are in urgent need of humanitarian aid, according to UN agencies.
The Saudi embassy in Athens had not replied to Al Jazeera’s request for a comment at the time of publication.
|Smoke rises after Saudi-led airstrikes hit a food factory in Sanaa, Yemen [Hani Mohammed/AP]|
On Monday, the Greek branch of Amnesty International published a statement calling on the government to abandon the deal.
According to Greece’s Arms Trade Treaty, which was signed in March 2016, the government should not sell weapons or military equipment to any country that will likely use them to violate international law, the rights group said.
“Amnesty International urges Greece to immediately withdraw the sale and transfer of military equipment to Saudi Arabia,” the statement said, adding that no “conventional weapons, ammunition and military equipment” should be sold to any parties involved in the conflict in Yemen.
Thanos Dokos, the director of the Athens-based Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy think-tank, said that the deal is not indicative of Greek plans to expand its role in the Middle East.
“It was just an opportunity for the Greek government to sell surplus weaponry and cover financial needs and for the other side [Saudi Arabia] to obtain more weaponry for the war in Yemen,” he told Al Jazeera.
Explaining that the debate is multi-pronged, Dokos said: “The communist party [and other leftists] are delighted to find an opportunity to criticise the government on ethical grounds… and moving forward it will probably be used by the opposition [New Democracy] in its wider criticism of the government.
“The opposition is basically saying ‘you’ve accused of being corrupt in the past, but you are no better yourselves’.”
‘Dark side to these transactions’
Syriza came to power in January 2015 after campaigning on a left-wing programme.
Yet, it became the target of criticism for reneging on pledges to end the country’s austerity measures, fumbling the mass influx of refugees since 2015 and maintaining close military ties with Israel, among other grievances.
Savas Michael-Matsas, leader of the leftwing Revolutionary Workers Party, argued that both the government and the opposition were attempting to “hide the truth”.
“There is always a dark side to these transactions,” he told Al Jazeera. “We are against selling weapons to Saudi Arabia as they kill the Yemeni people and foment war all over the Middle East, whether it’s by the Greek government or the United States.”
Nonetheless, Michael-Matsas argued that New Democracy has focused on the alleged role of a private broker to score political points.
“New Democracy and the rightwing have been involved in a thousand scandals,” he continued.
“It’s important to note that they are not criticising the criminal act of selling arms to a country [Saudi Arabia] which is carrying out a genocidal war in Yemen, preparing for a war in Iran and inciting more war in Lebanon.”
Earlier this month, the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) also decried the deal in a statement. “The KKE firmly opposes agreements of military character that Greek governments sign with countries which participate in interventions against other people, such as the case of Saudi Arabia [in Yemen],” the party said in a statement.
Seraphim Seferiades, a politics professor at Panteion University in Athens, said the Saudi arms deal is only the latest move in a long list of policies former supporters of the Syriza government perceive as betrayals.
“People have stopped measuring the party up to the notion of leftwing government,” he told Al Jazeera. “Despite the fact that Syriza is still employing left-wing rhetoric, they have been doing the exact opposite in reality.”