Greek government arrests Golden Dawn leader and MPs

Nikos Michaloliakos, the leader of Golden Dawn
Arrested: Nikos Michaloliakos, the leader of Golden Dawn

by Hélène COLLIOPOULOU

Greek police on Saturday swooped on the Golden Dawn party, arresting its leadership and hunting for dozens of members across the country in a crackdown sparked by the murder of a leftist musician.

The arrests came a day after Golden Dawn threatened to pull its lawmakers out of parliament, a move that could spark a political crisis in the recession-hit country.

The party urged its followers to demonstrate against what it called an “illegal decision” on Saturday and by late morning several hundred faithful had gathered in front police headquarters in Athens.

In dawn raids, Greek anti-terror police arrested party leader Nikos Michaloliakos along with party spokesman and MP Ilias Kassidiairis, two other lawmakers and a dozen party members, police said.

The charges against them ranged from belonging to a “criminal organisation” to murder and assault, according to a source in the justice ministry.

The police sweep came after the country’s supreme court, which has been charged with investigating the group, issued arrest warrants for some 30 members.

Golden Dawn has faced a crackdown after a self-confessed neo-Nazi fatally stabbed popular hip-hop musician Pavlos Fyssas, 34, on September 18, a killing that sparked nationwide protests.

The party currently has 18 lawmakers in parliament and prior to the murder was the third most popular political grouping in the country.

“This government is determined not to allow the descendants of the Nazis to poison our social life, to commit crimes, terrorise and undermine the foundations of the country that gave birth to democracy,” Prime Minister Antonis Samaras warned in a televised address a day after the killing.

Golden Dawn leader Michaloliakos has threatened to pull the group’s deputies out of parliament, a move that would prompt by-elections in 15 regions around the country.

“We will exhaust any means within our legal constitutional rights to defend our political honour,” Michaloliakos told reporters late on Thursday.

“If the country enters a cycle of instability, it is those who demonise Golden Dawn who will be responsible, not (us),” he said.

By-elections could hurt Samaras’s coalition government, which has a slim majority of 155 MPs in the 300-seat parliament, and could cast into doubt Greece’s ability to fulfil its obligations to creditors on multi-billion-euro bailouts.

Samaras’s conservative party is neck-and-neck in the polls with the radical leftist Syriza party that opposes Greece’s EU-IMF austerity bailout, and a strong showing by Syriza in by-elections could lead to the government’s fall.

Formerly on the fringe of Greek politics, Golden Dawn’s popularity has skyrocketed as it tapped into widespread anger over unpopular reforms in a country that is currently slogging through its sixth year of recession and where unemployment among the youth stands at a staggering 60 percent.

It went from 19,000 votes a few years ago to over 426,000 in June 2012 elections after pledging to “scour the country” clean of illegal immigrants.

The party, whose leader has denied the Holocaust, has sent black-clad squads to smash market stalls owned by migrants, held torch-lit rallies lambasting political opponents as “traitors” and “thieves”, and organised food donations exclusively for ethnic Greeks.

It has also been blamed for a series of brutal attacks on migrants and political opponents, though it strenuously denies any responsibility and claims to be the victim of slander.

This year, the party has consistently polled at over 10 percent, with its approval ratings even higher in the 18-44 age group, making them the country’s third-strongest political force.

Although the hip-hop artist’s murder has led to a dip in those ratings, analysts warn that the party’s popularity will make any efforts to outlaw it difficult and politically dangerous.

“The constitution makes no provision for the dissolution of a parliamentary group, even it there is proof that it is a criminal organisation,” Dimitris Christopoulos, an associate professor of law at Athens’ Panteion University, told AFP this week. – AFP