POLICE arrested the leader of Greece’s Golden Dawn party and other leading members of the far-right party yesterday, in an escalation of a government crackdown after a fatal stabbing allegedly committed by a supporter.
It is the first time since 1974 that sitting members of parliament have been arrested. The arrests underline the Athens government’s efforts to stifle the fiercely anti-immigrant party, which has been increasingly on the defensive since the killing.
Police announced the arrests of 17 Golden Dawn members on charges of forming a criminal organisation, including party head Nikolaos Michaloliakos, the group’s spokesman and three other politicians. Of the six politicians targeted, only one remains at large.
An operation by the counterterrorism unit carried on until last night, with a total of about 35 arrest warrants for Golden Dawn members issued.
“It is an unprecedentedly dynamic response to a neo-Nazi organisation,” government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou said, hinting that yesterday’s arrests were the culmination of a long strategy to deal with Golden Dawn as a criminal, not a political force.
“The prime minister and the government were determined to deal with Golden Dawn solely through the justice system … We have succeeded in stripping them of their political cover and deal with them as what they really are, a criminal organisation,” Kedikoglou said.
The government ordered an investigation into Golden Dawn’s activities after the death of rapper Pavlos Fyssas on 18 September sparked outrage across Greece. The suspect arrested over his death admitted to police that he had stabbed the 34-year-old and identified himself as a supporter of Golden Dawn. Police investigated his mobile phone records and those of more than 300 persons connected to Golden Dawn.
Investigations have extended to the police, who have been accused in the past of turning a blind eye to Golden Dawn violence and of mistreating immigrants. A police officer was also arrested yesterday amid claims that the party enjoys considerable support among serving officers.
The case is being handled by Greece’s supreme court and anti-terrorist squad under organised crime laws.
Despite the arrests, Golden Dawn politicians will retain their parliamentary seats until they are convicted of a crime. The party holds 18 of parliament’s 300 seats, after winning nearly 7 per cent of the vote in general elections last year.
Golden Dawn has vehemently denied any role in the murder, but the killing has appeared to dent its appeal among Greeks.
As calls for a crackdown mounted, the party hinted its deputies might resign to provoke elections in 15 multi-party constituencies.
“There will be no elections, certainly no general elections,” Kedikoglou said. Asked about the likelihood of partial elections if Golden Dawn deputies were to resign, he said “there are ways to deal with that, as well”.
“Justice, stability, no elections,” said prime minister Antonis Samaras, as he hurried from his office to Athens airport on his way to a six-day trip to the United States. Samaras was told of the arrests by two ministers during a break in talks with representatives of Greece’s international creditors.
Golden Dawn expressed outrage at the arrests in a text to journalists. “We call upon everyone to support our moral and just struggle against the corrupt system! Everyone come to our offices!” it said.
A later text message called for supporters to head to police headquarters “with calm and order”. A group of about 100 people, including several deputies, gathered, standing on the pavement across the street from the building.
A previously marginal organisation with neo-Nazi roots, Golden Dawn entered parliament for the first time in May 2012, capitalising on Greece’s financial crisis, rising crime and anti-immigrant sentiment.
The party’s members and supporters have been suspected of carrying out violent attacks, mainly against immigrants. Despite its reputation for violence, the party had enjoyed growing popularity.
The move to arrest leading members surprised some Greeks wary of political theatre in a country where little has been done to rein in a party widely viewed as neo-Nazi.
“It’s good that they arrested them, but I’m afraid that we will start killing each other now,” said Dimitra Vassilopoulou, a 58-year-old housewife.
“Does the government actually mean it or is it just a tactic to impress us? Why didn’t they do anything when the immigrants were killed? How come they just discovered that Golden Dawn is a criminal organisation?”
The party has warned it could pull its politicians from parliament if the crackdown continues.
If potential by-elections were won by the opposition, as some polls indicate, Greece’s fragile two-party coalition would become politically untenable, Golden Dawn’s Michaloliakos has argued.
The party scored 14 per cent of voter support in opinion polls before the stabbing. A poll this week showed this had fallen as low as 6.7 per cent.
Greek politicians do not lose their political rights or seats unless there is a final court ruling against them, but the government has proposed a law to block state funding for Golden Dawn if links to Fyssas’s murder are established.