Golden Dawn: the rapid rise and even quicker fall of Greece's far-right party

Black-clad party members once terrorised migrants and spread racial hatred with impunity

Supporters of the far right Golden Dawn party wave flags and shout slogans outside the Athens Appeals Court as a police van brings their jailed leader Nikos Michaloliakos, his second-in-command Christos Pappas and another MP, Yiannis Lagos, on July 4, 2014 in Athens to defend themselves before the magistrates leading a probe into the neofascist party on additional charges .  AFP PHOTO / LOUISA GOULIAMAKI (Photo by LOUISA GOULIAMAKI / AFP)
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One morning in November 2017, lawyer Evgenia Kouniaki stepped off a trolley car outside an Athens courthouse and spotted a mob beating a man. When she tried to stop the attackers, members of Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn party, one struck her in the face, breaking her nose.

So strong was Golden Dawn's support that its members could attack a lawyer involved in the prosecution of the party outside the courthouse where the trial was taking place.

Two years on, Golden Dawn – once the country’s third largest party – has all but collapsed. It lost its parliamentary seats in July elections, most of its offices closed, and its website went dark for weeks until recently reappearing.

Now 69 leaders and members could wind up behind bars for allegedly operating a criminal organisation. "They all have to be found guilty," Ms Kouniaki told The National. "That is what is most important."

Earlier this month, Golden Dawn founder Nikolaos Michaloliakos, 61, took the stand in the trial that has lasted more than four years. The criminal court has considered thousands of pages of documents and heard testimony from hundreds of witnesses.

Columns of riot police assembled outside the courthouse, while hundreds of anti-fascist activists rallied nearby. “Hang the fascists,” read a banner.

Inside, Mr Michaloliakos entered the courtroom flanked by police officers. “Rise up,” shouted a Golden Dawn member. About 100 supporters stood at attention, while opponents booed from across the courtroom.

The last defendant to testify, the far-right leader denied allegations of orchestrating violence and promoting neo-Nazi ideology. “I want to plead innocent to the charges against me,” he said, dismissing them as a “political conspiracy” against his party.

Sitting alongside other justices, the lead judge asked Mr Michaloliakos about fascistic “slogans and phrases” he uttered in the past and Golden Dawn’s militia-like battalions.

“There were no strike teams,” Mr Michaloliakos insisted.

For more than three hours, he blamed local chapters and individuals for years of widespread violence against migrants, refugees and Golden Dawn’s political opponents.

Investigative journalist Dimitris Psarras, an expert on Golden Dawn, described the testimony as a "disaster" for the party. "All he could do was blame local chapters and members," he told The National.

In 1980, Mr Michaloliakos founded Golden Dawn, a national socialist journal that regularly praised Adolf Hitler and promoted Holocaust denial. He registered Golden Dawn as an association five years later.

When Golden Dawn registered as a political party in 1993, its members were fresh from launching attacks on political opponents during massive rallies over the Macedonia name dispute a year earlier.

But the party remained on the political fringes until 2012, when it entered parliament for the first time after winning nearly 7 per cent of the vote.

Meanwhile, black-clad party members carried out attacks on migrants and political opponents around the country, patrolling migrant-heavy neighbourhoods and using parliament as a platform for anti-migrant incitement.

After Golden Dawn member Giorgos Roupakias stabbed to death 34-year-old anti-racist rapper Pavlos Fyssas in September 2013, the Greek government arrested and charged dozens of party leaders and members, including Mr Michaloliakos.

Their trial, which began in April 2015, had little effect on Golden Dawn’s support. In elections later that year, the party retained its spot as the third largest in the parliament.

Although Golden Dawn did not commit all the hate crimes, far-right violence was back on the rise in 2017. Attacks surged by more than 7 per cent, according to the Athens-based Racist Violence Recording Network.

Last year, the network recorded a 14 per cent increase in hate crimes when compared to 2017.

Petros Constantinou, national co-ordinator at the Athens-based anti-fascist union Keerfa, said the combination of “the trial and organising mass anti-fascist actions took the oxygen away from Golden Dawn”.

"They were opposed by a mass movement – in the streets, in the schools, everywhere," he told The National.

Since early October, more than a dozen former Golden Dawn parliamentarians have testified in the trial.

During former legislator Ilias Panagiotaros’s testimony, prosecutors confronted him with his own descriptions of migrants as “subhuman”, “trash” and “scum”.

He insisted that he had only been speaking about migrants who commit crimes, but later admitted he estimated that 99.9 per cent of migrants are criminals.

Mr Panagiotaros denied that the party functioned as a criminal organisation, insisting its leadership never sanctioned attacks.

Mr Michaloliakos echoed his co-defendants in his testimony. He claimed migrants should “go back to their homelands” but denied overseeing attacks.

When his testimony came to an end and he moved to leave the courtroom, his supporters took to their feet. “Blood, honour, Golden Dawn,” they chanted, as one threw his arm up in a fascist salute.

On the other side of the courtroom, left-wing opponents attempted to drown them out. “Pavlos lives on,” they shouted. “Smash the Nazis.”

Outside the courthouse, Javed Aslam, president of the Pakistani Community in Greece organisation, stood alongside Khadam Hussein Luqman, whose son was killed by two Golden Dawn supporters in January 2013.

Although Golden Dawn has collapsed, Mr Aslam insisted that a guilty verdict was as important as ever. "We are still waiting for justice," he told The National.