THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — More than 1,500 mourners gathered in a Roma settlement in northern Greece on Thursday for the funeral of a teenager who died days after being shot in the head by a police officer during a chase over an unpaid gas station bill.
The shooting of 16-year-old Kostas Frangoulis, who was married and had a young child, triggered days of protests which often turned violent, despite calls for restraint by the teenager’s family and Roma community leaders.
“Today all of society must be united. Today we are all Roma,” said Theofilos Alexopoulos, the family’s lawyer.
Mourners crowded round the open white coffin in which Frangoulis lay, a white baseball cap on his head and covered to the neck with flowers. Some placed banknotes in the coffin, in keeping with Roma tradition. The crowd played traditional mournful music and a rap song that was one of the teenager’s favorites as they formed a convoy that followed the hearse to the cemetery for the funeral service and burial.
“Today is a difficult day, a sad day,” said Giorgos Stamatis, the Labor Ministry’s Secretary General for Social Solidarity and Fighting Poverty, who attended the funeral. “We bid farewell to a young person … who didn’t have time to live his life and who leaves behind an underage wife and an underage child.”
Stamatis said the government would support the family “and all these people, breaking their social exclusion and the ghettos they live in.”
The Roma community has denounced the shooting in the northern city of Thessaloniki as racially motivated. Several Roma men have been injured or fatally shot in recent years during confrontations with police while allegedly seeking to evade arrest for breaches of the law.
The case has shone a spotlight on the Roma community, which faces widespread discrimination and often lives on the margins of society in Greece.
“Social inclusion with destitute people who live — not live, survive — in inappropriate conditions in camps, is not possible,” said Vassilis Pantsios, president of the Confederation of Greek Roma. “Social inclusion for us is for us to be integrated in society as a whole, with targeted policies” for a vulnerable population, he said, adding that the Roma community suffered from unemployment of above 70%-80%.
Police have said the youth attempted to ram the police motorbikes chasing him with his pickup truck. The officer accused of firing the shot has said he fired because he feared the lives of his colleagues were in danger, but that he had been aiming at the pickup truck’s tires and not at the driver.
The 34-year-old police officer was suspended and is under house arrest pending a court decision on whether to remand him in custody until his trial or release him on bail. Members of the Roma community have made clear they expect him to be put on remand. A decision is expected in the coming days.
Frangoulis spent more than a week hospitalized in critical condition after the Dec. 5 shooting, before dying of his injuries on Tuesday. Motorbike police had given chase after he allegedly filled his pickup truck with gas at a Thessaloniki station and drove off without paying the 20-euro ($21) bill.
The officer was initially charged with a felony count of attempted manslaughter with possible intent and a misdemeanor count of illegally firing his weapon. The felony charge is likely to be changed to manslaughter with possible intent following Frangoulis’ death.