ATHENS, Greece — Greece’s neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn was branded a criminal organization Wednesday, with its leaders facing heavy sentences in one of the most important trials in the country’s political history.
The judgment came as police and anti-fascist demonstrators clashed on the sidelines of a large protest of some 15,000 people outside the courtroom. A small group threw projectiles while police responded with tear gas and use of a water cannon.
Reading out the verdict in a trial that lasted over five years, presiding judge Maria Lepenioti said Golden Dawn founder and leader Nikos Michaloliakos and other senior members were guilty of running a criminal organization.
None of the party’s senior members were present in court.
Michaloliakos and fellow senior members face jail sentences from five to 15 years.
The sentences were to be announced in separate hearings.
The crowd had started gathering two hours before the verdicts were handed down in response to a call from the anti-fascist movement, trade unions and parties on the left.
The crowd waved banners with slogans including “Fyssas lives, crush the Nazis,” and chanted “The people demand the Nazis in jail.”
Representatives of parties across the political spectrum, from the governing conservative New Democracy party to Greece’s Communist Party, were outside the courthouse.
“The war against violence and hate is constant,” said New Democracy’s Giorgos Stergiou, noting it was under a New Democracy government that the prosecution of Golden Dawn began.
“Today the victims and society seek justice,” said center-left Kinal party leader Fofi Gennimata. “We are here because there is no room for fascism in our lives.”
Security was tight, with around 2,000 police deployed, as well as a drone and a police helicopter. The avenue outside the Athens courthouse, a few kilometers from the historic center of the capital, was closed off to traffic and the building itself was blocked off by a string of police buses.
The prosecutions were sparked by the late-night murder of a 34-year-old anti-fascist rapper called Pavlos Fyssas, who was chased down by a mob of Golden Dawn thugs and stabbed to death in front of a cafe in the western Athens suburb of Keratsini in September 2013.
His mother Magda was seen entering the court ahead of the hearing.
The killer, former truck driver Giorgos Roupakias, confessed, but the attack sparked outrage and the charges that Golden Dawn was a paramilitary-style organization that used beatings, intimidation and murder as tactics — all with the knowledge of senior party members.
Also convicted on Wednesday, Roupakias faces a life sentence. His conviction prompted applause inside the courtroom and among the crowd outside.
On Tuesday, lawmakers of the main opposition leftist Syriza party held up letters in parliament that spelled “they are not innocent.”
There was uproar last year when chief prosecutor Adamantia Economou called for the acquittal of the party leaders on the basis that the existence of a criminal organization had not been proven.
In total, 68 members of the party have been on trial, including Michaloliakos and more than a dozen other former MPs like him who were elected in 2012 as the openly xenophobic group capitalized on discontent over joblessness and migration.
Only 11 of the 68 defendants were present in the courtroom, with the rest represented by their lawyers.
The human rights group Amnesty International, which took part in and helped organize a network to record racist violence in Greece, said Wednesday’s verdict would boost the efforts of those trying to prosecute hate crimes.
“The accusations against the leaders and members of Golden Dawn, including the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, expose a fissure that exists not just within Greece but across Europe and beyond,” said Nils Muiznieks, Europe director at Amnesty. “The impact of this verdict, in what is an emblematic trial of an extreme far-right party with an aggressive anti-migrant and anti-human rights stance, will be felt far beyond Greece’s borders.”
Golden Dawn denies any direct link to the attacks and described the trial and charges brought against the party’s leadership as an “unprecedented conspiracy” aimed at curbing its rise in popularity.
As well as delivering a verdict in the murder trial for Fyssas and the trial of senior leaders of Golden Dawn, the court was also to hand down judgments for two other assault cases allegedly involving Golden Dawn members.
An Egyptian fisherman was left with broken teeth and head injuries after being beaten with clubs and metal bars in June 2012 as he slept.
Just over a year later, Communists putting up posters were attacked with nail-studded clubs.
Golden Dawn was at its political peak at the time of Fyssas’s murder, having won 18 seats in the 300-seat parliament in 2012 amid anger over a financial crisis in Greece that discredited mainstream political parties.
Three years later, it also sent three deputies to the European parliament in another strong showing.
But the investigation took its toll, causing a number of senior members to defect. In the last election in 2019, the party failed to win a single seat.