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Greek court rules far-right Golden Dawn leaders ran a crime group

ATHENS (Reuters) - A Greek court on Wednesday declared far-right party Golden Dawn a criminal group, effectively banning a radical organisation that was once the third-largest political force in the country.

The courtroom cheered as the high-profile trial reached its end after five years of hearings, as did thousands who gathered outside the Athens appeals court.

But the mood on the streets turned sour when isolated groups of hooded youths threw petrol bombs at police, who responded with tear gas and water cannon.

Golden Dawn was catapulted from obscurity to infamy in the space of a few years, attracting supporters with a xenophobic rhetoric at the height of Greece’s debilitating debt crisis.

But it started to unravel in September 2013, when a party supporter was arrested for the killing of Pavlos Fyssas, a musician and rapper aligned to the political left.

“With today’s decision, a traumatic cycle in the country’s public life comes to an end,” said Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. “As in the ballot, this Nazi group was also convicted by the court.”

Golden Dawn members, including its leader Nikos Mihaloliakos, were rounded up and authorities launched an inquiry into whether the group was a criminal organisation in parallel to the probe into Fyssas’s death.

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Before the court ruled that the party leadership was running a criminal group, the court found Golden Dawn supporter Yiorgos Roupakias guilty of Fyssas’s murder.

Fyssas’s black-clad mother Magda, who has not missed a day since the trial started, burst into tears when the verdict went against Golden Dawn.

“Pavlos you did it,” she said. “We won a battle but are continuing the fight.”

The Golden Dawn members were not in court on Wednesday. They were arrested in 2013, the first time that elected politicians had been detained in Greece since a military coup in 1967, and released after their pre-trial detention period expired.

Golden Dawn failed to win a single seat in last year’s parliamentary election.

Prosecutors had charged 65 people, including 18 former Golden Dawn lawmakers, with being members of a criminal group. The party said it was the victim of a political witch-hunt.

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Dozens of others on trial, party members and alleged associates, face convictions on charges that range from murder to perjury, linked to violent attacks on immigrants and left-wing activists.

Wednesday’s verdict sets the stage for the high-profile case to proceed with the court looking into sentencing for the murder of Fyssas and other violent attacks.

Tens of thousands rallied outside the court, holding banners reading “Fascism, Never Again” and “Freedom for the People, Death to Fascism”.

“We must send a message to the younger generations, a message against fascism,” said 69-year-old Sophia. “It’s our duty to democracy to be here today, to show we are standing up against such criminal actions.”

Amnesty International said Wednesday’s verdict would boost efforts to fight hate crimes.

“This verdict sends a clear message to political groups with aggressive anti-migrant and anti-human rights agendas in Greece and across Europe that violent and racist criminal activity will not go unpunished,” said Nils Muiznieks, Amnesty’s Europe director.

Additional reporting by Angeliki Kountatou; Writing by Michele Kambas and George Georgiopoulos, editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Giles Elgood