ATHENS – The trial of 69 members and leaders of the ultra-extreme right Golden Dawn party that was set to open on April 20 was suddenly set back to May 17 after one of the defendants said he didn’t have a lawyer and witnesses to the murder of an anti-fascist hip-hop artists were attacked outside the court.
The government has been accumulating evidence for almost two years to build a case that the party is really a criminal gang, a process that has taken so long that its leader, Nikos Michaoliakos, and other party hierarchy had to be released from pre-trial detention and are under house arrest for now.
It wasn’t explained why he and most of the party’s 18 Members of Parliament, all of whom had been arrested, didn’t appear for the beginning of the trial that came as hundreds of protesters in the neighborhood around the high-security Korydallos Prison where the proceedings are to take place demanded it be moved.
Only 44 defendants were taken to the court, with 25 absent, with no explanation why they didn’t have to show up for their criminal trial.
Among the charges are that the party has conducted assaults on immigrants and others including one member, Giorgos Roupakias, charged with killing hip-hop artist Pavlos Fyssas in September, 2013, stabbing him to death in a fracas outside a cafe.
Journalists were told that witnesses of Fyssas’s murder were attacked by Golden Dawn supporters as they arrived at Korydallos Prison. Details of the alleged incident were not immediately available but the police were notified.
The first day of the trial was attended by Fyssas’s mother, who appeared shaken and had to be helped by relatives. Others who came were representatives from political parties, as well as Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis, who also had been attacked by a Golden Dawn member, who was released.
HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
Prosecutors said that Golden Dawn used a Nazi methodology and carried out a campaign of violence against immigrants and left-wing opponents.
The trial is expected to last up to 18 months as the judicial system in Greece is painstakingly slow and defendants often are granted continuances for almost any reason, which caused the new delay after the trial had already been pushed back five months.
First appearing as a tiny neo-Nazi organization in the mid-1980s, Golden Dawn transformed from a marginal far-right group into a popular political party during the financial crisis that started in 2009.
It won 6.28 percent of the vote in a general election three months ago, despite having state campaign funding axed.
The trial is being held inside Korydallos maximum-security prison near Athens, where nearby schools and municipal services had to be closed for what was supposed to be the opening day. It wasn’t reported if they would have to stay closed for the duration of the trial as pro-and-anti-Golden Dawn protesters are expected to clash daily.
Police cordoned off streets around the jail, about 10 kilometers (six miles) west of the capital, while several anti-Golden Dawn rallies attended by more than a thousand protesters remained peaceful.
“The town is like a fortress … The trial should not take place here,” Korydallos Mayor Stavros Kasimatis said.
Michaloliakos, a 57-year-old anti-immigrant firebrand, and 12 other Members of Parliament each face up to 10 years in prison if found guilty. Politicians and legal experts are divided over whether convictions could lead to the party being outlawed, with most opposing a ban.
Although Greek authorities don’t keep official records on racist violence, human rights groups say a surge of attacks has occurred since 2010, typically against dark-skinned immigrants in Athens and frequently resulting in serious injury.
Victims have reported that attackers — often in groups and using brass knuckles and baseball bats — have often identified themselves as Golden Dawn supporters.
The party denies any involvement in attacks, however, claiming political opponents conspired against them after Golden Dawn exceeded 10 percent in opinion polls in 2013.
“They decided to put us in handcuffs … but in the face of all the mudslinging, Golden Dawn is the third strongest party in the country whether some people like it or not,” Michaloliakos said after his release from prison last month, having served the maximum 18 months permitted under Greek law in pre-trial detention.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)
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