The leaders of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party have been found guilty of running a criminal organization, bringing to an end a trial that lasted more than five years.
Judges ruled Wednesday that seven of the party’s former lawmakers, including leader Nikos Michaloliakos, were guilty of heading a criminal group, while others were found guilty of the lesser charge of participating in a criminal organization.
“Democracy won today. It is up to all of us for it to win every day,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said on Twitter after the verdict.
“Today’s historic decision to rule Golden Dawn is a criminal organization is a victory of the democracy. A shield for our democratic state, but also a strong pan-European message to those who question the strong foundations of the rule of law, our common principles and values,” said European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas.
The case has been referred to as the biggest Nazi trial since Nuremberg.
The trial involved several elements: the fatal stabbing of Greek musician Pavlos Fyssas, attacks on migrant fishermen, attacks on left-wing activists, and whether Golden Dawn was operating as a criminal organization.
Some 68 party members, including the entire top leadership, faced charges ranging from murder, attempted murder, possessing illegal weapons, racist violence and money laundering to running a criminal organization. The party vehemently denied the allegations and any link to the attacks, claiming they were victims of a political witch-hunt.
As the verdict was announced, a large crowd of people gathered outside the court cheered while inside the courtroom, victims and their families applauded and burst into tears.
“The court ruling sealed today what the anti-fascist movement has been saying for years, that this is just a gang of knife-wielding thugs, who took their orders from the top,” said Thanassis Kambayiannis, one of the lawyers representing the fishermen. “It has been proved that the bees can beat the wolves. Solidarity and humanity, the thousands of people that took to the streets won today.”
According to Greek police estimates, more than 20,000 people gathered outside the appeals court, including representatives of political parties from across the spectrum and the leader of the main opposition Syriza party, Alexis Tsipras. More than 5,000 people held an anti-fascist rally in Thessaloniki, while similar rallies took place in other Greek cities.
“They were never innocent. They knew it, we knew it,” Tsipras said. “Today, Greek justice sealed this with a decision that will go down in history.”
There were violent clashes shortly after the announcement, with petrol bombs thrown at officers who responded with teargas and water cannon, police said. Eyewitnesses said police overreacted to what was a generally peaceful demonstration.
Golden Dawn was founded in 1993, emerging from a tiny sect of Hitler supporters whose members were known for violence against minorities, migrants and left-wingers. However, it barely registered at the ballot box until the height of the financial crisis and rose to become the third most popular party in the Greek parliament in 2012. Its support has since plunged and it failed to enter the parliament at elections in 2019.
Little action was taken against Golden Dawn until, in 2013, a party member stabbed to death anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas in the streets of Piraeus. The cold-blooded killing prompted a huge reaction and led to the investigation that culminated in Wednesday’s decision.
Fyssas’ mother, who became a symbol of the anti-fascist movement and was ever-present during the trial, rushed out of the courtroom shouting “Pavlos did it, my son” with her fists in the air.
The verdict “constitutes a historical moment,” said Gabriel Sakellaridis, Amnesty International’s executive director in Greece. “After years of impunity, justice has been granted for the victims of hate crimes and racist violence and their families. At the same time, a message is sent to all Europe that hate crimes based on racism and discrimination shall not be tolerated.”
After the verdict, ex-Golden Dawn MP and current independent MEP Ionnis Lagos tweeted that he would continue to fight the system and called the Greek judiciary “idiot” and “slave.”
The landmark trial was initially expected to last 18 months, but moved at a snail’s pace. For long periods, the Athens court couldn’t find an adequate room or personnel for the hearings, while Golden Dawn’s attorneys slowed the process by submitting thousands of documents. A strike by Greece’s union of lawyers and the coronavirus also froze proceedings for several months.
Golden Dawn sympathizer Giorgos Roupakias was found guilty of killing Fyssas and faces a life sentence. Another 15 defendants, none of them former MPs, were convicted as accomplices in the murder. All five people accused of attempted murder of Egyptian fishermen were found guilty, while four people accused of attempted murder in the attacks against left-wing activists were found guilty of the lesser charge of causing bodily harm. Only 11 of the 68 defendants and none of the former lawmakers were present in the courtroom.
The party members found guilty of running or being members of a crime group face up to 15 years in prison. Sentencing is expected soon, and potentially as early as later Wednesday.