ATHENS Greece's parliament voted to lift the immunity of six lawmakers from the far-right Golden Dawn party on Wednesday, paving the way for a deeper investigation into accusations its members were involved in criminal offences.
The killing of a left-wing rapper on September 17, which prosecutors said was carried out by a Golden Dawn supporter, triggered anti-fascist protests across the crisis-hit country.
Police started investigations into whether the party was involved in a string of violent attacks, including the killing, and Greece's top court charged six Golden Dawn lawmakers last month with belonging to a criminal group.
Golden Dawn has denied wrongdoing and accused the government of tactics not seen since a military junta ran Greece more than four decades ago.
On Wednesday, lawmakers overwhelmingly backed the prosecutors' request to lift the immunity of two people from that group, and four other Golden Dawn lawmakers. Golden Dawn's parliamentary group abstained.
"I'm being persecuted for my beliefs, not for my actions," lawmaker Panagiotis Iliopoulos, one of those whose immunity was removed, told parliament before the vote.
"My daughter, who will be born in a few days, will one day ask me: 'Father why did they make you suffer like this?' and I will tell her: 'My girl, once upon a time, loving your country unconditionally was considered a crime.'"
Parliament's move will allow prosecutors to lay fresh charges against the named men if they find enough evidence. The September charges were made under a special court order that was only valid for 48 hours.
"The thieves, crooks and those who destroyed the country and sold it off to foreign loan sharks are those who should stand trial," said Golden Dawn lawmaker and spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris.
Polls show most Greeks support the crackdown, despite the shock of seeing elected politicians led away in handcuffs.
Although the party remains Greece's third most popular political force, support has dropped to about 6-7 percent of voters from 10-13 percent before the killing.
The party rose from obscurity on an anti-immigrant and anti-austerity agenda to enter parliament for the first time last year. Its banner features a swastika-like emblem and its leader has denied the Holocaust took place but the group says it is not neo-Nazi.
If convicted of criminal association, the Golden Dawn lawmakers face 10 years in jail.
Greek lawmakers are protected from prosecution and in most cases only parliament can lift their immunity if they are suspected of criminal activity. MPs do not lose their seats unless there is a court ruling against them.
On Thursday, parliament is expected to vote on a bill that blocks state funding for parties whose leaders or lawmakers are being prosecuted on felony charges, which would deprive Golden Dawn of a major source of financing.
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)