Zak Kostopoulos’s family say murder charges must be brought in a case that has exposed deep homophobia
Days after his death in the heart of Athens, the image of Zak Kostopoulos began to appear across the city centre, on buildings and nondescript office blocks, the marble steps of neoclassical mansions, walls and columns.
On Gladstonos street there were also words, some sprayed, some stencilled, some handwritten, but all amounting to the same thing: a memorial to a man who dared to be different.
It was here that the LGBTQ+ activist, drag artist and columnist was killed in broad daylight on 21 September 2018.
Informally renamed Zackie Oh after Kostopoulos’s alter ego, the pedestrian sidestreet is now a symbol of the fight for justice in a case that has not only exposed profound homophobia in Greece but a culture of “abuse and impunity” in its police force.
Kostopoulos, a vocal campaigner for HIV-positive people like himself, was 33 years old when he was killed in a jewellery shop on Gladstonos. How he got trapped in the store remains unknown. What is clear from video clips that later emerged of his death is the violence that he endured.
“It was a lynching. There’s no other way to describe it,” said Philippos Karagiorgis, who is seen in the footage, arms outstretched, attempting to stop the attack. “He was … on all fours like a baby, desperately trying to crawl through the shattered glass of the shop’s window. Every time he tried to get up, these two men would kick him in the head, again and again.”
Karagiorgis, who will testify when the case is brought to trial, witnessed the assault after his motorbike ran out of fuel and puttered to a standstill nearby. “There was a lot of commotion, a lot of screaming,” said the salesman, speaking about the incident for the first time. “What I’ll never forget was the apathy of the crowd, people sitting there in the cafes, watching as if it was a movie, when it was the most aggressive, inhuman thing I’ve ever seen. My soul darkened that day.”
Initially, Kostopoulos was portrayed as a drug addict and thief, caught in the act by a shopkeeper who had momentarily stepped away. Media reported police being called to arrest a “knife-wielding robber”. The shop proprietor and a fellow storeowner – later revealed to be a far-right sympathiser – were described as intervening to stop him.
But video footage taken by onlookers has yielded a different version of events. It shows Kostopoulos being hit and kicked as he tries to extricate himself from the premises. Despite putting up no resistance, he is then violently apprehended by police. By the time an ambulance reaches the nearest hospital, he is pronounced dead.
“He is clearly only half alive but they cuff him from behind, making any attempt at resuscitation impossible,” said Anny Paparousou, one of two criminal lawyers representing the activist’s family. “It’s hard not to conclude that this was a hate crime.”
Amnesty International has called Kostopoulos’ death “murder” and launched a global campaign. Six people, including the two shop owners and four policemen, stand accused of inflicting fatal bodily harm, a charge all deny.
Controversy and setbacks have marred the quest for justice. From the outset, when it was reported that authorities failed to seal the crime scene – allowing it to be cleaned – rights campaigners have spoken of a cover-up.
None of Kostopoulos’s fingerprints were found on a knife – dispelling allegations he was intent on robbing the store. Instead, supporters say he appears to have run into the shop for refuge after an altercation outside. Toxicological reports confirmed Kostopoulos had no traces of drugs or other substances in his body, and a coroner found he had died of multiple injuries, sustained mostly to his head.
“When I visited the scene the next day, I asked waiters in the cafes opposite what had happened and they all said: ‘He slashed his throat,’” Kostopoulos’s younger brother, Nikos, told the Guardian.
“Based on the autopsy, that is simply not true, and I keep asking: ‘Why did they have to lie?’ Zacharias was a victim of prejudice. He was very open, very expressive. He’d walk down the street and often people would hurl abuse at him. He believed in freedom. From a young age he told our parents: ‘This is who I am.’ It was new to them, but they were very supportive. My mother calls him ‘my hero’.”
The family hired Forensic Architecture, the UK-based agency that analyses human rights violations, to conduct its own inquiry. Its assessment was damning: Greek police had failed to launch a proper investigation, overlooking vital video footage and CCTV cameras that captured the scene.
Now the family wants justice so no one has to endure the same thing, said Nikos Kostopoulos, referring to a judge’s decision to indefinitely postpone what had been an eagerly awaited trial.
“I honestly believe that all the things he was against – patriarchy, stigmatisation, stereotypes – killed my brother in the end,” he sighed. “Zacharias was perceived as less. What really happened would’ve been buried if people hadn’t come forward with the videos.”
The family’s lawyers are pressing for murder charges to be brought. They also want all nine police officers involved in Kostopoulos’s arrest – not four – to be charged with homicide.
“Fatal bodily harm is inadequate if the trial is to send the right message,” said Paparousou.
A ray of light has appeared. A prosecutor recently instructed investigators to expand the inquiry into the death. “That raises the prospect of more people being included in the criminal complaint,” the lawyer added.
The trial was put on hold in November by a court citing public health risks, but not before the sitting judge, Giorgos Kassimis, had described the hearing as “historic.” A new trial date is expected in the coming months.
For Greece’s LGBTQ+ community, Kostopoulos and his alter ego, Zackie Oh, represent the long overdue struggle for equality and respect.
Increasingly, the brutal manner of his death has drawn parallels with the fatal stabbing of the anti-fascist rapper, Pavlos Fyssas, whose murder at the hands of a Golden Dawn member lead to the unravelling of the neo-Nazi party.
“It’s the same ideology that killed both of them,” said Annie Papazoglou, 28, of Colour Youth, a leading Athens LGBTQ+ organisation. “Homophobic assaults are still common here. There’s been a huge recruitment of police officers in central Athens and growing incidents of police violence and abuse of power. It’s crucial Zak’s murderers are convicted … to show nothing like this will ever be tolerated again.”
Street artists are also poised to paint the streets. “Zak’s an icon,” said one who goes by the name Mitsos Kiklamanos.
Last year, street artists with the urban graffiti group Political Stencil rented a crane and painted through the night so that by daybreak, the entire wall of a building in the downtown neighbourhood of Exarcheia bore the image of Kostopoulos and Zackie Oh.
“This is about difference and the lack of tolerance for it in this society,” said Kiklamanos, 48, an arts teacher by profession. “Zak was murdered for being who he was. And that’s why his image is going to be on walls and columns, every surface we can put it on, for a very long time.”