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Greek Golden Dawn MPs before judge, call charges 'fairy tale'

ATHENS (Reuters) - Four lawmakers of Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn party were hustled into a court building before cheering supporters on Tuesday to respond to charges of belonging to a criminal group after the killing of an anti-racism rapper by a party supporter.

Flanked by hooded anti-terrorism police, Ilias Panagiotaros raised his handcuffed fists in the air and proclaimed his innocence, shouting: “This fairy tale has no end!”.

Panagiotaros, Ilias Kasidiaris, Nikos Michos and Yannis Lagos were arrested on Saturday alongside party leader Nikolaos Mihaloliakos and dozens more Golden Dawn members.

The crackdown on Greece’s third most popular party, whose appeal has so far appeared immune to accusations of brutality, is the biggest threat to Golden Dawn since it entered parliament last year. The party has drawn on anger over the country’s debt crisis, financial cutbacks, high unemployment and corruption.

The party members have been charged officially on evidence linking the party with a string of attacks, including the stabbing of rapper Pavlos Fissas on September 17 and the killing of an immigrant this year.

The court magistrate will decide if the suspects will be kept in detention pending trial. Mihaloliakos and his deputy leader Christos Pappas are expected to appear before the magistrate this week.

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The killing of Fissas - who bled to death after being stabbed twice in the heart and chest in what prosecutors said was a premeditated attack - has prompted protests across Greece, a shake-up of the police and a broad investigation of the party.

The arrests are the most significant mass round-up of lawmakers since a military coup in 1967. The lawmakers deny the charges and say the crackdown is politically motivated.

Police have so far found unlicensed weapons, Nazi flags and portraits of Adolf Hitler during searches of the homes of arrested party members.

But Golden Dawn, whose black-and-red emblem resembles a swastika, rejects the neo-Nazi label. It has strongly denied involvement in the killing and links to violent attacks on immigrants.

Rage with traditional parties and fears over a recession-driven rise in crime catapulted Golden Dawn from obscurity to win 18 seats in parliament last year, promising to rid the country of “the stench of immigrants”.

The party has courted the support of victims of the country’s acute economic recession by giving out food in rundown neighborhoods.

The party says its members are victims of a conspiracy and political persecution, and called for protests outside the court in solidarity with its detained members.

“Ideas cannot be prosecuted!” the party declared on its website.

Writing by Karolina Tagaris; editing by Ralph Boulton