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19 Alleged Members of November 17 Terrorist Group Put on Trial in Greece - 2003-03-03

The long-awaited trial of 19 alleged members of the Greek terror group November 17 got underway in Athens Monday, amid unprecedented security measures.

After being led from cells directly underneath the specially constructed courtroom in Greece's largest maximum security prison, the 19 suspects took their seats in a bulletproof glass cage where, ringed by armed police, they were asked to confirm their names.

The 18 men and one woman are alleged members of November 17, a left-wing group accused of murdering 23 people and carrying out hundreds of bombings and robberies over a 28 year period.

The group's reign of terror began in December 1975, with the assassination of the CIA station chief in Athens, Richard Welch. Its last victim was the British military attache Stephen Saunders, who was fatally shot while driving his car in June 2000.

Between the two killings, not a single member of the group was arrested, leading to charges of incompetence against the Greek security services. But police secured a vital breakthrough last year, when a botched bombing led to a series of arrests.

One of those caught was the alleged mastermind of the group, silver-haired Alexandros Giotopoulos, who has denounced the charges against him as a fantasy concocted by U.S. and British intelligence services.

The trial's first day was filled with technical arguments, including objections from defendants that the three-judge panel is not fit to try them, because their acts were politically motivated.

For Greece, the trial is a major security coup ahead of next year's Olympic Games in Athens. The government is determined that nothing will upset the most eagerly awaited trial in the country since the fall of the military dictatorship in 1974.

Spectators packing the courtroom have to pass through an elaborate series of security checks to gain entrance to the public gallery, while local journalists have been enraged by a ban on live broadcasts from the courtroom.

Greece's 20 -year statute of limitations means that the killing of Richard Welch is not being taken into account at the trial. But the defendants are still facing life sentences, if found guilty at the end of the proceedings, which are expected to last for several months.