Appeal trial for jailed Golden Dawn leaders to start amid anti-fascist protests

The imprisoned protagonists of Greece’s once powerful neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party will seek to overturn prolonged prison terms in an appeals court trial due to open amid anti-fascist protests in Athens this week.

Eighteen months after members were convicted of operating a criminal organisation that masqueraded as a political party, appellate judges will start hearing the case afresh on Wednesday.

“The outcome is going to be hugely significant,” said Petros Constantinou, who coordinates Keerfa, the country’s highly active anti-fascist front. “At a time when the war in Ukraine has emboldened fascists Europa sobre, the message has to be one of zero tolerance.”

In a replay of scenes last seen in the Greek capital when a lower tribunal of all-female judges announced its landmark decision in October 2020, thousands of unionists and leftist protesters are expected to demonstrate outside the court complex when the trial begins. Only this time they will be chanting “Keep the fascists in prison and stop the racist attacks”.

“Since early May there has been a surge of violent incidents against migrants in central Athens,” said Constantinou. “People have been knifed and shot at by hit squads employing tactics that have been similar to those we’ve seen in the past. Greek justice has already found Golden Dawn to be what it is, a criminal organisation. We want its leaders to be given harsher sentences than the 13-year [terms] they’ve already received.”

The group took Europe by storm as Greece’s debt crisis unfolded. Not since the restoration of democracy with the collapse of military rule in 1974 had a party as brazenly thuggish or ideologically extreme – its emblem bore an uncanny resemblance to the swastika – been catapulted into Athens’ parliament.

Exploiting popular fury at austerity policies demanded by international lenders to stave off bankruptcy, the anti-immigrant ultra-nationalists won 7% of the vote in 2012, consolidating their position as Greece’s third biggest political force.

In what would become a blood-soaked reign of terror on the streets of the capital’s poorer neighbourhoods, hit squads commandeered by specially trained party members targeted migrants, trade unionists and leftwing sympathisers.

It took the 2013 assassination of Pavlos Fyssas, an anti-fascist rapper, to trigger the outrage that would gradually set in motion the group’s downfall.

When finally arrested, MPs were discovered to be in possession of Third Reich memorabilia, with Nikolaos Michaloliakos, who had founded the neo-Nazi movement in the 1980s, the self-anointed leader of an organisation run along paramilitary lines.

In the marathon five-year trial that followed, Golden Dawn was exposed as a criminal gang that had used the mantle of political legitimacy to terrorise its way into the public consciousness. Más que 50 cadres, including almost all of its lawmakers, were found guilty of charges that ranged from murder to illegal possession of weapons. Almost all, including the party’s core leadership, argued they were the victim of political persecution.

After narrowly failing to cross the 3% threshold to win entry into the 300-seat house in the country’s last general election three years ago, the extremist group has all but dismantled amid defections, feuds and infighting.

Hospitalised with Covid earlier this year, Michaloliakos, an ardent anti-vaxxer, was recently moved from an intensive care unit to a rehabilitation centre because of mobility problems. He will not be attending the appeal hearing.

But the far right in Greece is far from gone. Although the initial verdict – the highlight of a trial hailed as a pivotal point in Greek political history – is unlikely to be overturned, the race is on to fill the gap left by Golden Dawn.

“It took months for the [primero] court to even write up the judgment, which runs to 12,700 pages and is backed by extraordinary detail and analysis,” said Dimitris Psarras, a leftwing writer and key prosecution witness whose dogged investigations played a central role in uncovering the organisation’s dark ideology and wanton embrace of violence. “In my view there’s a very slim chance it could change on appeal.”

The conspiratorial Greek Solution party has already helped soak up some of Golden Dawn’s lost votes. But looming recession, an inflation rate of over 10% and soaring tensions with Turkey, could further help the extremists, analysts fear.

From his prison cell, Ilias Kasidiaris, once Michaloliakos’s trusted lieutenant, has managed to ensure that his breakaway party, Greeks for the Fatherland, has gained momentum.

“It is polling consistently at around 2% and may well be higher, proof that the story of the populist radical right in Greece is far from over,” said ProfVasiliki Georgiadou, a specialist in far-right militancy at Panteion University. “We live at a time of nationalist myths, economic uncertainty and growing anti-westernism, all of which will help vindicate their narrative.”

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