ATHENS (AFP) — Greece begins one of its most publicized trials in decades on Monday, with dozens of people linked to the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party facing charges including murder and participation in a criminal organization.
The trial, expected to last for months, will likely decide the future of parliament’s third-largest party, an openly xenophobic and anti-Semitic formation that used to be on the fringes of national politics but whose popularity soared over the past few years as the country sank into economic hardship.
Set inside a high security prison in Athens, the trial will see party chief Nikos Michaloliakos and 68 others, including lawmakers and police officers, face a panel of three judges.
Most face charges of membership in a criminal organisation, a serious offence in Greece, while others are accused of murder, conspiracy to murder, possession of weapons and racist violence, and face sentences of up to 20 years if convicted.
After a 15-month investigation, state prosecutors will try to prove that the aggressive anti-immigrant group operated as a criminal organization under a military-style leadership that allegedly encouraged the beating — and possibly the killing — of migrants and political opponents.
Under the command of party founder Michaloliakos, a 57-year-old disgraced former officer cadet, Golden Dawn has already been linked by investigating magistrates to at least two murders.
Golden Dawn rejects the accusations as politically motivated.
Bracing for trouble
The trial is due to start inside the female inmates’ wing of the high-security Korydallos prison, with officials bracing for possible trouble both inside and outside the jail.
Inside, anti-fascist and anti-racism groups that have vowed to keep a close eye on the trial are planning to supply enough supporters to offset an expected crowd of Golden Dawn members.
“Golden Dawn members usually cram (into) the courtroom from dawn. We do not want this to happen, and will take all necessary measures to prevent it,” anti-fascist activist Takis Giannopoulos told AFP in the run-up to the trial.
Outside, local authorities are also preparing for disturbances, with police likely to erect barriers to keep the rivals apart.
“This is Greece’s biggest trial in 40 years. It will last at least 18 months. There will be gatherings by anti-fascist groups and Golden Dawn supporters,” Korydallos mayor Stavros Kasimatis told AFP ahead of the trial.
From fringe to mainstream
Golden Dawn was founded in the mid-1980s by Michaloliakos, handpicked by ex-dictator George Papadopoulos to lead a far-right youth group after the junta fell.
For years it operated as a semi-clandestine group, but in 2012 it exploited widespread anger over immigration and austerity reforms prompted by Greece’s financial crisis and won 18 seats in the 300-seat parliament.
Although its members had been known to patrol the streets, carrying out attacks on foreigners, the party rarely faced sanctions until the murder of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas in September 2013.
The group was later also linked to the murder of a Pakistani immigrant and beatings of political opponents.
Michaloliakos and a number of others were arrested, and a subsequent search of party members’ homes uncovered firearms and other weapons, as well as Nazi and fascist memorabilia.
Nevertheless the group held on to its support base in January’s general election, finishing third with 17 seats in the legislature.
Golden Dawn also grabbed third place in European Parliament elections in May 2014, naming three MEPs for the first time in its history.
The party follows a strict military-style regimen, and investigating magistrates say its structure emulates that of the Nazi party — something Golden Dawn denies.
For many years Golden Dawn glorified Adolf Hitler in its party publications, but this rhetoric was later toned down.
Even so, in a May 2012 interview Michaloliakos effectively denied the Holocaust, telling Greece’s Mega channel: “There were no crematoria, it’s a lie. Or gas chambers.”