The trial of 69 members of the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn on charges of running a criminal organization began Monday in the absence of the party leader and other main defendants.
Golden Dawn founder Nikos Michaloliakos and 12 of the 13 MPs on trial failed to show up for the proceedings in a specially built courtroom at a high security prison near Athens.
Two hours after it began the trial was adjourned until May 7 because one of the defendants had no lawyer, a judicial source said.
Security was tight both inside and outside Korydallos prison, where hundreds of anti-racism demonstrators gathered, carrying banners including one declared “Smash fascism,” as rows of helmeted riot police stood watch.
The English-language local daily Kathimerini reported that some of the witnesses to a murder that was the impetus for the investigation were attacked by Golden Dawn supporters as they arrived at the prison.
Michaloliakos and his right-hand man Christos Pappas did not attend the trial, having being released from custody in March after spending 18 months in pretrial detention.
They were represented by their lawyers, who gave no explanation for their absence.
Party spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris, who is currently in detention, was also absent from the dock.
Only around 40 of the defendants, who include police officers accused of supporting the far right group, were present, according to AFP’s count.
The trial, which is 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 as the country sank into economic hardship.
“This is Greece’s biggest trial in 40 years,” Korydallos Mayor Stavros Kasimatis told AFP ahead of the trial.
Murder, weapons and racism
Most of the defendants are charged with membership of a criminal organization, a serious offence in Greece.
Others are accused of murder, conspiracy to murder, possession of weapons and racist violence, and risk sentences of up to 20 years if convicted.
A panel of three judges is hearing the case.
After a 15-month investigation, state prosecutors will try to prove that Golden Dawn operated as a criminal organization with a military-style leadership that allegedly encouraged the beating — and possibly the killing — of migrants and political opponents.
Under the command of Michaloliakos, a 57-year-old disgraced former army cadet, the party has already been linked by investigating magistrates to at least two murders.
Golden Dawn rejects the accusations as politically motivated.
The group was founded in the mid-1980s by Michaloliakos, handpicked by ex-Greek dictator George Papadopoulos to lead a far-right youth group after the country’s junta fell.
For years it operated as a semi-clandestine group, but in 2012 it exploited widespread anger over immigration and austerity measures to win 18 seats in the 300-seat parliament.
From fringe to mainstream
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.
The group nonetheless 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, winning three seats that gave it representation in the assembly for the first time.
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.”