Yorgos Karahalis/REUTERS
Extreme-right Golden Dawn party senior lawmaker Christos Pappas is escorted by anti-terrorism police officers to a courthouse in Athens October 3, 2013. The leader of the party was sent to jail pending trial on criminal charges on Thursday in a boost to a government campaign to wipe out what it calls "a neo-Nazi criminal gang."

Greek crackdown on the Golden Dawn: What are the risks?

Greece has been struggling to find ways to limit the influence of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. But some worry moving against Golden Dawn lawmakers could backfire.

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Three right-wing lawmakers in Athens were released from custody this week pending trial, in a move that raised concerns that Greece’s crackdown on the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party could backfire.

Some 35 people associated with the political party Golden Dawn, which gained 18 MPs in parliament last spring, were arrested on Saturday in a crackdown sparked by the stabbing murder of an anti-racism rapper last month.

"This government is determined not to allow the heirs of the Nazis to poison our social life, to commit crimes, to terrorize and to undermine the foundations of the country that gave birth to democracy," Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said in a brief televised address after the death of rapper Pavlos Fyssas.

A man arrested at the scene of the murder identified himself as a supporter of Golden Dawn, though the party has denied any involvement.

After more than 17 hours of testimony, three Golden Dawn politicians were released yesterday, while a fourth was kept in custody due to evidence linking him to murder, attempted murder, blackmail, and other criminal activity, reports The New York Times. Party spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris, who is known for attacking a woman during a live TV debate after she disagreed with him and denouncing former Prime Minister George Papandreou as being "only 25 percent Greek," was one of the three politicians released. He hit and shoved journalists on his way out of court, multiple media outlets report.

The government arrested party leader Nikolaos Mihaloliakos this morning after six hours of testimony lasted late into the night. When he was first brought into court, an estimated 200 party supporters waved Greek flags and yelled, “blood, honor, Golden Dawn,” reports Reuters.

It is illegal to ban political groups in Greece, so the government is instead trying to prove the party’s criminal ties. 

Agence France-Presse describes the history of the party, which is some three decades old but only gained a presence in parliament in elections last year. Golden Dawn capitalized on Greek unhappiness with government leadership amid the sovereign debt crisis, austerity, and anti-immigration sentiments.

The party follows a strict military-style regimen. Its members conduct parades dressed in black shirts and camouflage trousers, and are required to stand to attention before higher-ranking members.

Magistrates have linked the group to two homicides, three attempted homicides, robberies and an arson attack on a bank.

The evidence was drawn from prior police investigations, police wiretaps and the testimony of former members who have described how the group orchestrated attacks on migrants and Greek rivals.

According to the magistrates' report, which was leaked to the media, Golden Dawn also held clandestine training in the use of assault weaponry for elite members….

At the time of its inception and for years thereafter, Golden Dawn glorified Adolf Hitler and the warrior ethos of Nazi Germany in its party publications.

One of the party's older texts, read in parliament by a leftist MP in May, called Hitler a "visionary of new Europe".

"Faith in the words of the Fuehrer, and faith in victory, grows in our hearts. The fight goes on, the future is ours," the Golden Dawn text read.

This is the first crackdown on elected officials in Greece in almost five decades, reports the Associated Press.

The release of some party members has worried observers who question how well planned the government crackdown on Golden Dawn has been. Party supporters say the cases against Golden Dawn sympathizers and members are based mainly on illegal wiretaps. The New York Times reports:

…[A]lready, serious questions have been raised about the planning and effectiveness of the crackdown, and whether it may actually boomerang against the government and end up generating sympathy for Golden Dawn, one of Europe’s most violent far-right groups.

“If it is not handled properly, you could get a kind of a bounce back of Golden Dawn,” said George Katrougalos, a constitutional law professor at the Democritus University of Thrace. “If they appear to be victims of the establishment, that may broaden their appeal.”

Questions are already being raised about the legality, even constitutionality, of the government’s methods.

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

The latest polls in Greece show that Golden Dawn has lost support since the murder of Mr. Fyssas, reports the Associated Press. This past week, between 6 and 7 percent of voters said they would vote for the party today, down from 8 to 12 percent before, reports The Wall Street Journal.

“Is this the end of Golden Dawn, or is it really just the beginning?” Eleni Batziopoulou, a philosophy student in Keratsini, Greece asked The New York Times. “I want to believe it’s the end, because I want to have hope in the future. But if it’s not, then it’s the start of a wave of trouble.”

Charges against Golden Dawn party members and supporters include some cases that have been in limbo for years, and include murder, money laundering, and extortion charges, reports the Times. Some question how these cases went without judicial attention for so long. Raids have been conducted this week on homes and offices of police officers with suspected ties to the party, reports the Associated Press.

“It is obvious that there was an inertia toward Golden Dawn by the state and other authorities until now,” Mr. Katrougalos told the Times.

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