ATHENS – In a historic verdict in Greece’s most high-profile political trial in decades, an Athens court on Wednesday found the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party guilty of running a criminal organization as it rose to prominence during the country’s financial crisis, taking systematically targets migrants and left-wing critics.
The sentence came more than five years after the trial began in a makeshift courtroom in Greece’s largest maximum security prison near Athens and, as at the start of the trial, none of the party officials were in the courtroom where the verdict was announced.
The three-judge criminal court has tied the party to a series of attacks including the fatal stabbing in 2013 of a leftist rapper, Pavlos Fyssas. Party member who stabbed Mr. Fyssas, Giorgos Roupakias, was found guilty of murder on Wednesday.
Formed in the 1980s by a former Greek army commando, the Golden Dawn party was catapulted from obscurity to become Greece’s third largest political party at the height of the country’s financial crisis in 2012, tapping into public discontent against the austerity and a growing influx of immigrants.
During its tenure in the Greek parliament from 2012 to 2019, the party maintained public support by presenting itself as patriotic and fighting the system from within, but maintained links with neo-fascist parties in other European countries and the United States.
A wave of violent attacks in 2013, culminating in the fatal stabbing of Mr. Fyssas, accelerated the party’s dissolution.
A few days after the murder, police arrested the party’s entire leadership when a judicial investigation began on suspicion that Golden Dawn had conducted criminal activities under its military-style leadership.
The trial eventually began in April 2015 with a 3,000-page dossier, 69 defendants – one has died since – and 120 prosecution witnesses. Although Golden Dawn lawmakers avoided appearing in court whenever possible, the proceedings had an impact on the party’s appeal. Once at the forefront of Greek politics, Golden Dawn failed to win re-election to the Greek parliament last year.
But despite the party’s fall, the threat of neo-Nazism in Greece has not abated. Former members of parliament, including Ilias Kasidiaris, once a spokesman for Golden Dawn, have formed their own parties by espousing similar views. And less far-right parties have also sprung up in the wake of the party, including the nationalist Greek Solution.
Golden Dawn, for its part, systematically denied any direct link to the attacks and described the trial and charges against the party leadership as “politically motivated” and a “conspiracy”. “All supporters await an acquittal tomorrow, a decision that will spark an even louder nationalist campaign to reclaim our country,” the party said in a statement released on the eve of the trial.
Human rights group Amnesty International said in a statement Monday that a guilty verdict would increase efforts to crack down on hate crimes.
“The allegations against the leaders and members of Golden Dawn, including the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, reveal a rift that exists not only in Greece but across Europe and beyond,” said Nils Muiznieks, Amnesty’s European director. “The impact of this verdict, in what is an emblematic trial against a far-right party with an aggressive stance against migrants and against human rights, will be felt far beyond Greece’s borders.”
“Our country’s experience of the disastrous formation of the Nazi entity of the Golden Dawn has been traumatic, painful and, sadly, very bloody,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis wrote on Twitter last week.
Speaking ahead of the decision, 68-year-old Elena Karvouni, who was among the gathered people, said it was important for her to be in court, despite the pandemic. Some wore masks and gloves, and some tried to keep social distances in the crowd.
“As a mother and a citizen of this country that fought hard against fascism, it was not possible that I was not here,” she said.
Elena Kritikou, 50, said the crowds of young people cheering Alexandras Avenue in Athens and the area outside the courthouse made her feel elated.
“I feel like there is hope for a better tomorrow,” he said.
Pending the verdict, people chanted anti-fascist slogans – “Pavlos lives, crush the Nazis” and “No absolution for the Nazis” – while the Italian resistance song “Bella Ciao” played in the background.
“It is my duty to be here,” said Giannis, a 19-year-old computer science student who declined to give his last name. “I didn’t know Pavlos Fyssas personally, but in his place it could have been someone else too, it could have been me.”
“We don’t tolerate groups like Golden Dawn, it has to be condemned,” he added.