ATHENS, Greece (AP) – Four top officials of the extreme-right Golden Dawn party were among a flurry of arrests of party members Saturday, 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.
Police announced the arrests of party leader Nikos Michaloliakos, spokesman Ilias Kassidiaris and two other lawmakers on charge of forming a criminal organization. Authorities also said they arrested a local Golden Dawn leader in an Athens suburb, as well as nine other unnamed party members.
Two police officials said an operation by the counterterrorism unit is still ongoing, with a total of about 35 arrest warrants for Golden Dawn members issued. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to speak publicly.
The arrests have come 11 days after the killing of a left-wing activist rapper by an alleged Golden Dawn member. Though the party has vehemently denied any role in the killing, it has appeared to dent its appeal among Greeks and the government has worked to crack down on the party.
A formerly marginal organization with neo-Nazi roots, Golden Dawn entered the Greek Parliament for the first time in May 2012, capitalizing on Greece’s deep financial crisis, rising crime and anti-immigrant sentiment, polling just under 7 percent. It has 18 deputies.
A government spokesman refused to comment on the details of the operation.
“Democracy can protect itself. Justice will do its job,” government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou told reporters.
The party’s members and supporters have frequently been suspected of carrying out violent attacks, mainly against immigrants. Despite its reputation for violence, the party had enjoyed growing popularity as poverty has risen in Greece.
In addition to Michaloliakos and Kassidiris, Golden Dawn deputy, Ilias Panayiotaros, gave himself up at police headquarters, telling police they were looking for him at a wrong address. Another lawmaker, Yannis Lagos, has also been arrested.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.