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'Martyr for Greece': Retiree's suicide sparks violent protests

Hundreds of anti-austerity protesters in Greece have been remembering one of their own. In front of the parliament in Athens a 77-year-old retired pharmacist killed himself. In a note he said government cuts wiped out his pension and robbed him of his dignity. ITV's Martin Geissler reports.

ATHENS -- An elderly Greek's suicide outside parliament has quickly become a symbol of the pain of austerity and has been seized upon by opponents of the budget cuts imposed by Greece's international lenders.

Dimitris Christoulas, 77, shot himself in the head on Wednesday after declaring that financial troubles pushed him over the edge. A suicide note said the retired pharmacist preferred to die than scavenge for food.

The highly public -- and symbolic -- nature of the suicide prompted an outpouring of sympathy from ordinary Greeks, who held a protest march and set up an impromptu shrine with notes condemning the crisis at the spot where he killed himself.

The BBC reported that violence flared at the demonstration on Wednesday night, with some protesters hurling Molotov cocktails at police. They responded by firing tear gas.

"As you walk around the streets of Athens and beyond you can see the social fabric tearing," the BBC's Mark Lowen said.

The conservative newspaper Eleftheros Typos called the victim a "martyr for Greece" and said his act was filled with "profound political symbolism" that could "shock Greek society and the political world and awaken their conscience" in the weeks before a parliamentary election that will determine Greece's future.

'Family man'
Anger was directed as much at politicians as it was at the austerity medicine prescribed by foreign lenders in return for aid to lift the country out of its worst economic crisis since the Second World War.

"It's horrible. We shouldn't have reached this point. The politicians in parliament who brought us here should be punished for this," said Anastassia Karanika, a 60-year-old retiree.

The head of the Attica Pharmacists' Union, Constantinos Lourantos reportedly told Skai radio that Christoulas was "a calm, family man."

John Kolesidis / Reuters

A mourner cries on Thursday at the spot where 77-year-old Dimitris Christoulas took his own life in Syntagma Square in Athens, Greece.

With the tragedy occurring barely a month before elections are expected in Greece, smaller parties opposed to harsh spending cuts included in the country's second bailout were quick to point the finger at bigger parties backing the rescue.

"Those who should have committed suicide -- who should have committed suicide a long time ago -- are the politicians who knowingly decided to bring this country and its people to this state of affairs," said Panos Kammenos, a conservative lawmaker who recently set up the Independent Greeks anti-austerity party.

Smaller parties like the Independent Greeks have been riding high in opinion polls at the expense of the two main co-ruling parties, the conservative New Democracy and socialist PASOK, backing the bailout.

The two big parties are together expected to take less than 40 percent of the vote. Losing more voters to the smaller parties could put them at risk of not having enough seats in parliament to forge a pro-bailout coalition again.

That in turn would have profound implications for Greece's finances, given continued aid from European partners and the International Montary Fund is contingent on Greece's new government pushing through reforms demanded as part of the bailout.

Yorgos Karahalis / Reuters

A protester throws a stone at police officers during rioting in Syntagma Square in Athens, Greece, on Wednesday night.
Greek police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters taking part in a rally commemorating the death of Dimitris Christoulas.

New Democracy and PASOK, which have ruled Greece for decades, expressed their sorrow for the tragedy. Political opponents attacked them for joining in the mourning.

"Shame on them. The accomplices responsible for the suffering and despair of the Greek people ... should at least keep quiet in the face of the hideous results of the capitalist crisis and their policies, instead of pretending to be saviors and sensitive," the KKE Communist party said.

Resentment is growing in Greece over repeated rounds of wage and pension cuts that have compounded the pain from a slump which has seen the economy shrink by a fifth since 2008.

Unemployment has surged to a record 21 percent -- twice the eurozone average -- with one out of two young people without a job. The number of suicides has surged and many Greeks feel ordinary people like the retired pharmacist are being forced to pay for a crisis that was not of their making.

Economy-related suicides hit Italy
Meanwhile, an Italian man shot himself dead on Wednesday because his company was going bust, following a wave of economy-related suicides in the country which one opposition politician blamed on Prime Minister Mario Monti's reforms.

The 59-year-old Rome-based construction firm owner left a note apologizing to family members and explaining that his business had failed, police said.

A day earlier, a 78-year-old woman in Sicily jumped to her death because her monthly pension payments had been reduced. On Monday, a picture-frame maker hanged himself because of economic difficulties.

And last week, two men set themselves on fire in northern Italy due to financial woes. Both survived, one with severe burns.

Opposition politician Antonio Di Pietro, leader of the Italy of Values (IDV) party, criticized the government's reform agenda in parliament, and said Monti had the suicides of people who can't make it to the end of the month "on his conscience".

At a news conference on Wednesday, Monti refused to reply to the comments from Di Pietro, a fiery former anti-corruption magistrate, who was one of the harshest critics of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Italy is struggling with a recession, rising unemployment and increasingly severe austerity measures.

Reuters and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

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