Greece: Despite releases, crackdown on Golden Dawn continues

Greece's government persists in building a case against leaders of Golden Dawn, a Nazi-inspired political party that has gained support in recent years. The government alleges Golden Dawn members have been participants in several recent violent attacks.

AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis
Leader of the Golden Dawn party, Nikos Michaloliakos, center, smiles toward his supporters upon his arrival to a court for a hearing in Athens, Wednesday. The government has cracked down on Michaloliakos and his fellow Golden Dawn members following the murder of a left-wing rapper last month.

The head of Greece's extremist right-wing Golden Dawn party testified into the early hours of Thursday on charges of running a criminal organization as part of an investigation into his party triggered by the killing of a left-wing rapper.

Nikos Michaloliakos was led into a central Athens courthouse on Wednesday evening wearing handcuffs. More than 100 supporters waved Greek flags and chanted "Blood, Honor, Golden Dawn."

Earlier, the investigating magistrates ordered the release of three party lawmakers in a marathon court session. A fourth lawmaker, Yiannis Lagos, was jailed pending trial. All have denied the charges against them.

The government, which has vowed to eradicate Golden Dawn, insisted the case against the Nazi-inspired party was still on track despite the releases.

"This essentially changes nothing. Their charges stand, the investigation is ongoing and the evidence is being gathered," Interior Minister Yiannis Michelakis said on Skai television. "We are at the first stage of this investigation."

Golden Dawn, which the government has described as a "Nazi creation," rose from the margins of Greece's political scene to become the third most popular party in Greece amid the country's severe financial crisis. It has long been blamed for a series of violent attacks, mostly against immigrants.

The party denies it is behind any violent attacks.

Party spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris was released on 50,000-euro ($67,770) bail. No bail was set for the other two lawmakers, Ilias Panagiotaros and Nikos Michos. All three were banned from leaving the country.

They stormed out of the court building, with Kasidiaris punching a television cameraman and kicking a photographer as he went. They swore at and threatened journalists as they headed out of the court complex, and later as they left police headquarters after collecting their personal belongings.

"There's political motivation hidden behind this," Kasidiaris' lawyer Pavlos Sarakis said of the case against his client. Sarakis was expelled from Prime Minister Antonis Samaras' New Democracy party after he took the case to defend the Golden Dawn spokesman.

"It is clear that the judiciary has refused to follow the orders of a government enslaved to foreigners," the party said in an online statement after the decision to free three of the four lawmakers. "The unconstitutional, blatantly illegal government conspiracy is collapsing under the huge weight of truth and common sense."

Golden Dawn's leadership was arrested over the weekend in a crackdown sparked by last month's stabbing death of 34-year-old left-wing rapper Pavlos Fyssas. The man arrested for the attack identified himself to police as being involved in Golden Dawn. The party has vehemently denied any role in the killing.

Thirty-two arrest warrants were issued in the case, including two for police officers. Authorities have been continuing raids on the homes of police officers with suspected ties to criminal activities allegedly linked to the party.

The police internal affairs division arrested a deputy police chief serving in an Athens police station, on charges of abuse of power, smuggling, money laundering and issuing false certificates. Authorities also arrested the officer's wife and a woman described as an active Golden Dawn member in connection with the same case, and were searching for a retired police officer, a police statement said.

A search of the arrested officer's home and office uncovered 23,200 euros ($31,445), weapons, more than two dozen cellphones and numerous photocopies of passports, residence permits and applications for state-issued identity cards. The officer has been suspended.

Rights groups and medical charities have long warned of an increase in the viciousness and frequency of attacks attributed to Golden Dawn members or supporters. Two men arrested in January for the fatal stabbing of a Pakistani migrant were believed to be supporters of the group. But Fyssas' death was the most serious crime attributed directly to an alleged party member.

Associated Press Writer Nicholas Paphitis contributed.

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