Greece's Golden Dawn lawmakers freed before trial

ATHENS Wed Oct 2, 2013 1:45pm EDT

1 of 4. Extreme-right Golden Dawn party leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos is escorted by anti-terrorism police officers into a court house in Athens October 2, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Costas Baltas/ICON

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ATHENS (Reuters) - Three senior lawmakers from Greece's far-right Golden Dawn were freed on Wednesday pending trial on criminal charges, an unexpected setback to the government's efforts to clamp down on a party it has labeled a neo-Nazi criminal gang.

The decision to free the men after an 18-hour court session raises questions about the solidity of the state's case against Golden Dawn after one of its sympathizers stabbed to death an anti-fascism rapper.

Party spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris and fellow lawmakers Ilias Panagiotaros and Nikos Michos stormed out of the court to cheers of "bravo" from supporters. They kicked and shoved journalists out of the way before hailing a taxi.

"We will not back down!" Michos shouted. "You can only stop us with bullets. Even from the grave, we will rise up - know this well!"

The unfolding saga has riveted a country where a crackdown on elected politicians has not been seen since a military coup nearly five decades ago.

Golden Dawn rose from being a fringe party to win 18 seats in parliament in last year's election. It has drawn on anger over the debt crisis, budget cuts, high unemployment and corruption to become what opinion polls indicate is Greece's third most popular party, but has lost about a third of its support since the killing.

The images of the men walking freely were in stark contrast to footage of the party's leaders handcuffed and hustled to police headquarters at the weekend.

"The political world is shocked," said Asimina Ksirotiri, a lawmaker from the Democratic Left party said in parliament.

In a letter by Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Mihaloliakos written from his police cell and published on the party's website on Wednesday, he said the authorities would not succeed in their effort to undermine his party.

"The truth will ultimately shine, their plans will not pass. However this dark story ends, it is certain that we Golden Dawners made history and no one can take this away from us," he said.

Mihaloliakos later arrived at court flanked by hooded anti-terrorism policemen with machineguns.

"CRUSHING EXTREMISM"

Hundreds of flag-waving supporters were outside the court chanting the party's "Blood! Honour! Golden Dawn!" slogan as scores of police in riot gear stood guard. "Even in death, we will stand by you, leader!" a man shouted.

Kasidiaris was released on bail of 50,000 euros ($67,600). He, Michos and Ilias Panagiotaros were ordered not to leave Greece. A fourth Golden Dawn legislator, Yannis Lagos, was ordered to be kept in detention. All four denied the charges.

The four lawmakers were arrested on Saturday alongside Mihaloliakos and two dozen party members.

They have been charged on what prosecutors say is evidence linking the party with a series of attacks, including the stabbing of rapper Pavlos Fissas on September 17 and the killing of an immigrant earlier this year. A trial date has not been set.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's government has vowed to wipe out a party of "Nazi descendents". It has shied away from trying to ban the party outright but has ordered investigations into it and plans to introduce laws against hate speech and deprive the party of state funding.

Samaras has said the government was "crushing extremism" and called Golden Dawn a "fascist, neo-fascist, neo-Nazi party whose leader is currently in jail."

Responding to the charges against him behind closed doors, Kasidiaris said he was a victim of political persecution and denied before the magistrate that the party had paramilitary-like "storm troops" trained by him, a court official said.

The party has been linked by human rights' groups to attacks on dark-skinned immigrants by gangs of Golden Dawn supporters dressed in black and wielding baseball bats.

Nazi memorabilia, including flags, helmets with swastikas and portraits of Adolph Hitler, have been found in the homes of arrested members, police said. The party rejects the neo-Nazi label.

(Additional reporting by Phoebe Fronista and Harry Papachristou in Athens; Anna Yukhananov in Washington D.C.; Writing by Karolina Tagaris, editing by Deepa Babington and Janet Lawrence)

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Comments (9)
creut80 wrote:
This bumbling arrest by the Greek government can only enhance political heft of Golden Dawn. It’s mechanism of every tyranny to close down dissidents by prosecuting their leaders – that’s what makes everyday Greeks apprehensive about heavy-handed “crackdowns”. Any government that must use force to quell its opposition is lame and dangerous. This was the stupidest move the government could have made. Polls show after this “rapper’s” killing, Golden Dawn lost 2.5 percent of support. Most polls have error margin of three percent – so the party lost nothing.

Oct 02, 2013 9:55am EDT  --  Report as abuse
J.Reyes wrote:
The Greek government are hypocrites. They want to clamp down the political party illegally in order to get them out of the way in the next elections. Totalitarianism at its best. The leaders of the Greek government should be trialed and be sent to jail.

Oct 02, 2013 11:01am EDT  --  Report as abuse
schein wrote:
So frightening. The more we see the more it looks like a repeat of history. Germany of the 1930′s with Hitler rise to power with prior developments such as the brown shirts, the SA and eventually the consolidation with the SS , one Fuhrer and complete dictatorship….. Let us hope that Greece will wake up and get rid of this cancer.

Oct 02, 2013 2:15pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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