Col. George Papadopoulos, who headed the military dictatorship in Greece from 1967 to 1973 that imprisoned thousands of political dissidents, died of cancer at an Athens hospital Sunday. He was 80 and was serving a life sentence for treason and insurrection.
Papadopoulos led an obscure faction of Greek army officers that seized power from a paramilitary government in a lightning coup just before general elections in April 1967. The officers claimed they acted to end rampant corruption in the government, which they feared would bring Communists to power in Greece.
They quickly imposed an ultraconservative regime and set up special military tribunals under a state-of-siege order. Political parties were banned, censorship introduced and the secret police began torturing suspected opponents. More than 10,000 people were arrested during the first few days, and as many as 6,000 were deported to the island of Yaros, described in one news dispatch at the time as a rat-infested rock of an island in the Aegean Sea.
The junta even tried to impose restrictions on personal appearance. Women were harassed for wearing miniskirts and men were jailed if their hair was deemed too long.
King Constantine, Greece’s figurehead monarch, was unaware of the putsch beforehand but accepted the junta, believing he could eventually control the situation with the help of military loyalists. He tried a counter-coup later that year, but it failed miserably and the royal family was forced into exile in Italy, never to return.
Driving the king from power was a large step for Papadopoulos, the son of a village schoolmaster, who was born in the Peloponnesian region of southern Greece. He graduated first in his class from the country’s War Academy just before hostilities with Italy broke out in 1940. He was commissioned a second lieutenant and served throughout World War II and then with nationalist forces that defeated the Communist insurgents in the 1946-49 civil war in Greece. In the late 1950s, he was posted to the Greek Intelligence Service and became chief of national security and counterintelligence. From 1964 until the 1967 coup, he commanded artillery units and held the rank of colonel.
Even foreigners were not immune from the Greek junta. After throwing red flowers into the crowd at an Athens concert, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones was pulled offstage by officials who believed he was making a statement in support of communism.
The junta was condemned in the West for its authoritarianism. The United States imposed a temporary ban on arms sales. But a 1971 visit by then-Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, who was of Greek descent, was viewed as tacit support for the dictatorship.
When a group of naval officers attempted a coup in support of the monarchy in 1973, Papadopoulos abolished the monarchy and declared Greece a republic. He installed himself president, lifted martial law, freed political prisoners and promised parliamentary elections.
His downfall came in November 1973, during a protest at Athens Polytechnic school. Fighting broke out to quell the demonstrators but quickly got out of hand, spreading through downtown Athens. At least 50 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured.
Maj. Gen. Dimitrios Ioannides, chief of the military police and a noted torturer, seized on the incident to oust Papadopoulos and reimpose martial law. Ioannides reign was short-lived, however, collapsing in July 1974, after he plotted a military takeover of Cyprus. The abortive coup provoked a Turkish invasion of the island, which remains divided into Greek and Turkish zones.
In 1975, the government of Prime Minister Constantine Caramanlis tried Papadopoulos, his successor Ioannides and 31 others for complicity in the deaths of the student demonstrators. Papadopoulos was convicted and sentenced to be executed by firing squad, but Caramanlis commuted the sentence, fearing military reprisals.
Papadopoulos spent the rest of his life in hospitals and in a special wing of Korydallos maximum-security prison near Athens.
He is survived by his wife, Despina. Funeral plans were not immediately known.
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