LEADERS of Greece’s third-largest political party, the extreme right Golden Dawn, went on trial yesterday on charges of operating as a criminal organisation that allegedly carried out a campaign of violence against immigrants and left-wing opponents.
Party leader Nikos Michaloliakos and senior officials are among 69 defendants in the case, which is being closely watched by a country reeling from financial hardship and political uncertainty.
Currently under house arrest, Michaloliakos was not present at the start of the trial, which is expected to last more than a year.
The trial was adjourned until 7 May to allow one of the defendants to receive court-appointed representation.
First appearing as a tiny neo-Nazi organisation in the mid-1980s, Golden Dawn transformed from a marginal far-right group into a popular political party during the financial crisis that started in 2009.
It won 6.28 per cent of the vote in a general election three months ago, despite having state campaign funding axed.
The trial is being held inside Korydallos maximum-security prison near Athens, where nearby schools and municipal services were closed yesterday.
Police cordoned off streets around the jail, about six miles west of the capital, while several anti-Golden Dawn rallies attended by more than 1,000 protesters remained peaceful.
“The town is like a fortress …The trial should not take place here,” Korydallos mayor Stavros Kasimatis said.
Michaloliakos, a 57-year-old anti-immigrant firebrand, and 12 other members of parliament each face up to ten years in prison if found guilty. Politicians and legal experts are divided over whether convictions could lead to the party being outlawed, with most opposing a ban.
Although Greek authorities do not keep official records on racist violence, human rights groups say a surge of attacks has occurred since 2010, typically against dark-skinned immigrants in Athens and frequently resulting in serious injury. Victims have reported that attackers – often in groups and using brass knuckles and baseball bats – have often identified themselves as Golden Dawn supporters. “Golden Dawn is not being prosecuted for its ideology but its criminal activity… This is an important day for the country,” said Athens mayor Giorgos Kaminis, who was summoned to the trial as a prosecution witness.
The party denies involvement in attacks, and claims political opponents conspired against it after Golden Dawn exceeded ten per cent in opinion polls in 2013.
“They decided to put us in handcuffs… but in the face of all the mudslinging, Golden Dawn is the third-strongest party in the country whether some people like it or not,” Michaloliakos said after his release from prison last month, having served the maximum 18 months permitted under Greek law in pre-trial detention.
The crackdown against Golden Dawn was launched in 2013 after Greek rap singer Pavlos Fyssas was stabbed to death, allegedly by a party volunteer who was arrested after the street attack.
But Golden Dawn, whose black-and-red emblem resembles a swastika, rejects the neo-Nazi label. It has strongly denied involvement in Fissas’s killing. It says the defendants are victims of a political witch-hunt.
“Golden Dawn states unequivocally that it wants and expects the smooth conduct of a fair trial… which will prove an attempt to frame the movement of Greek nationalists at the behest of foreign power centres,” the party said on its website.