A woman holds a candle as people gather at the site where an elderly man fatally shot himself at Athens’ main Syntagma square on Thursday. The 77-year-old retired pharmacist has shot himself dead in the busiest public square of the Greek capital during the morning rush hour on Wednesday morning

Austerity-linked suicide draws tributes, clashes

Police clashed with demonstrators for a second day Thursday at the site where an elderly man shot and killed himself in downtown Athens and left a note blaming the country’s harsh austerity measures for his suicide.

ATHENS — Police clashed with demonstrators for a second day Thursday at the site where an elderly man shot and killed himself in downtown Athens and left a note blaming the country’s harsh austerity measures for his suicide.

About 1,000 people gathered in the capital’s main Syntagma Square to leave flowers, candles and messages for the late retired pharmacist Dimitris Christoulas, and several dozen youths dressed in hoods and crash helmets smashed paving stones with hammers and threw the rubble at riot police.

The protesters chanted “Killers! Killers!” as police responded with tear gas and flash grenades during the clashes.

Christoulas, 77, shot himself in the head Wednesday in Syntagma Square next to parliament — rekindling anti-austerity protests that have frequently turned violent over the past two years.

The suicide occurred during morning rush hour, and the tree under which he died was quickly covered with Greek flags and notes blaming government-imposed austerity for his death.

In the suicide note published by local media, Christoulas said he could not survive on his pension and expected Greeks to take up arms and “hang traitors” in the square.

“It was clearly a political act,” said Petros Constantinou, organizer for the left-wing Antarsya group, which participated in the protests. “The fact that a person reached the point of giving his life to change the situation shows … where the policies of austerity and poverty have brought people.”

“This is not just desperation. Someone has given his life to stop these policies,” Constantinou said. “I think it was a wake-up call, that things cannot continue this way, and he wanted people to rise up.”

Neighbours and acquaintances said Christoulas was politically active, joining a string of anti-austerity protests at Syntagma Square last year, but did not appear to have debts or visible financial problems.

“He was quiet, a bit of an introvert. He lived alone and took the tube,” said neighbour Irene Economou. “He had put up a banner on his balcony with the sign ’I won’t pay,”’ referring to an anti-austerity movement that has called for free use of toll-roads and public transport. “I had heard he was very political.”

Greece has survived on rescue loans from its European partners and the International Monetary Fund since May 2010. To secure the cash lifeline, the country imposed harsh cutbacks, slashing pensions and salaries while repeatedly increasing taxes. A new round of belt-tightening worth about 7 per cent of Gross Domestic Product is expected to be announced in June.

The crisis has cost tens of thousands of jobs, sending unemployment to a record high of 21 per cent, while one in two Greeks aged under 25 is jobless — amid a shrinking economy that is not expected to revive for at least two years.

Police have recorded more than 1,700 suicides and attempted suicides since 2009, while the health ministry said suicides increased 40 per cent in the first five months of 2011 over the same period in 2010, with analysts linking the surge to the pressures of economic hardship.

John Giouzepas, head of the Hellenic Association of Psychiatrists, said that while suicide data vary greatly, the Greek crisis — especially its unemployment and poverty — is inducing a state of hopelessness and helplessness that can lead to depression and self-destructive behaviour.

Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, and the heads of the two parties in his interim coalition government, have expressed sorrow for Christoulas’ suicide. Greece is heading for national elections next month, with anti-austerity parties doing well in the polls.

Even the influential Church of Greece stepped in Thursday, saying that while it frowns on suicide, the tragedy in Syntagma Square has provoked “sorrow and sympathy.”

“Growing problems and the intensifying crisis cultivate despair and lead people to desperate acts while stripping them of their dignity,” a Church statement said.

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