Stephen Saunders (British Army officer)

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Brigadier Stephen Saunders (1947 - 8 June 2000), the British military attaché in Athens, was killed on 8 June 2000[1] by motorcycle gunmen who were members of Revolutionary Organization 17 November (17N). Saunders was buried with a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone in Melbury Osmund churchyard in Dorset, close to where he had previously lived.

Assassination and investigation[edit]

Saunders was attacked and shot dead by two men on a motorcycle while driving through Athens traffic on his way to work at the British Embassy, Athens at 7:48 am. 17N claimed credit for the killing in a proclamation originally dated March 2000 and published in Eleftherotypia on 9 June 2000. The group charged, falsely, that Saunders was an RAF wing commander involved in the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. In fact he was an army brigadier with broad peacekeeping experience completely unconnected with the Kosovo War.

17N revealed in a second proclamation dated 11 December 2000, also published in Eleftherotypia,[2] that it had erroneously believed Saunders's embassy-issued Rover was armored. Therefore the killers used a Heckler & Koch G3 assault rifle they had stolen from a Greek police station in August 1988. That gun jammed after one shot, and the killer[s] fired four more shots with a .45 Colt M1911 pistol. Saunders died in the hospital shortly afterward.

Witnesses told police they saw a shorter man behind a taller man, both helmeted, on a white Enduro motorcycle. Police recovered a stolen green Modenas Kris 111cc scooter with stolen license plates parked nearby.

The investigation that followed was driven by an unprecedented level of co-operation between Greek and UK Police services, with support from the U.S. FBI and CIA. Scotland Yard provided training and sent Greek-speaking police officers to compile and restudy the fragmentary evidence compiled since 17N began its operations in 1975. Heather Saunders made a highly effective televised appeal for help in finding the murderers. Family members of 17N victims formed an advocacy group Os Edo (Ως Εδώ -- "Up to Here") that lobbied for a tougher Greek anti-terrorism law, passed as Law 2928/2001.

The lengthy investigation identified suspects for membership in 17N but produced no evidence usable in court. On 29 June 2002, 17N member Savvas Xiros (hitherto unknown to police) was gravely injured when a time bomb he was planting exploded prematurely in Piraeus. He agreed to confess that he had driven the scooter, with fellow member Dimitris Koufodinas carrying the G3. Before the 2003 trial of 19 suspected members of 17N, Xiros retracted his confession. Both he and Koufodinas were sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder. An activist against the Greek military junta of 1967–1974 named Alexandros Giotopoulos, living underground under the pseudonym Mihalis Oikonomou since 1971, was convicted as 17N's leader and thus the moral instigator of the murder, while Savvas's brother Vasilis was convicted as the accomplice who helped preposition the vehicles.

Further claims[edit]

In his 2009 memoir "Reluctant Spy" (Bantam), former CIA officer John Kiriakou wrote of driving past Saunders's blood-stained car the morning of 8 June. He claimed that the reason for his abrupt departure from Greece in August 2000 was the discovery that Greek terrorist group 17 November (17N) had been stalking him instead of Saunders. He quoted the 17N proclamation taking credit for the Saunders murder: “We saw the big spy, but he was in an armored car and we knew that he was armed. So we elected to carry out the sentence on the war criminal Saunders.” (p83) However, the sentence actually reads: "The moment of the operation, bottled up at the traffic light immediately in front, was an American armed mega-spy of the CIA, while about 100 meters back was [shipowner] Vardinogiannis with his armed escort." This proclamation was published in Eleftherotypia on 13 Dec 2000, four months after Kiriakou's departure from Greece. Kiriakou, who described himself as driving far behind Saunders that morning, could not have been the "mega-spy" 17N described. The original proclamation makes clear that 17N was intent on a British target.

Conspiracy theories regarding 17N abound, often spread by adherents of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) to discredit potential rivals to the KKE's role as revolutionary vanguard party. The evidence presented at the 2003 17N trial and 2007 appeal appears to confirm the insistence of 17N members that they were exactly what they claimed to be, revolutionary communists engaged in "armed propaganda."

One of many attempts to implicate the U.S. government as the sponsor of 17N appeared in December 2005, when Kleanthis Grivas published an article in To Proto Thema, a Greek Sunday newspaper. He claimed that "Sheepskin", the Greek version of Gladio, NATO's stay-behind paramilitary capability during the Cold War, carried out the assassination of CIA station chief Richard Welch in Athens in 1975 and also the assassination of Stephen Saunders more than a decade after the Cold War ended. This charge was denied by the US State Department, who responded that "the Greek terrorist organization '17 November' was responsible for both assassinations",[3] and noted that Grivas's central piece of evidence was a disinformation document of Soviet origin (the so-called "Westmoreland Field Manual") which the State department, as well as a Congressional inquiry had dismissed as a Soviet forgery. It should be noted the documents make no specific mention of Greece, 17 November, nor Welch. The State Department also highlighted the fact that, in the case of Richard Welch, "Grivas bizarrely accuses the CIA of playing a role in the assassination of one of its own senior officials" as well as the Greek government's statements to the effect that the "stay behind" network had been dismantled in 1988. [4]

Legacy[edit]

Since 2001 St. Catherine’s British Embassy School in Athens has been awarding the Stephen Saunders Award for Good Citizenship to a pupil with outstanding contribution to school life, society and the support of others. Past recipients include Kevin Saric, Krisztian Goodwin, Yasmin Kotopoulis, Ashira Gailor, Kimberly Saric, Rallia Fafalios, Christos Daskagiannis and Filippos Letsas.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "British diplomat shot dead in Athens". BBC News. 8 June 2000. Retrieved 24 May 2010. 
  2. ^ http://athens.indymedia.org/local/17N/praktika.php?day=40
  3. ^ Leventhal, Todd (20 January 2006). "Misinformation about "Gladio/Stay Behind" Networks Resurfaces". Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 9 January 2009. 
  4. ^ US State Department archive

See also[edit]