‘Golden Dawn’ of dark timeshttps://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/web/golden-dawn-of-dark-times/

‘Golden Dawn’ of dark times

With the Euro zone debt crisis destroying jobs and incomes,Greece is seeing the rise of a radical right — as well as of a radical left — like other countries of Europe

She first got into politics in Greece last year,when she bought herself a bullet-proof vest and learned how to beat up immigrants with poles hung with the national flag.

Her training over,she was a full member of Golden Dawn,the far-right party whose rage against foreigners has propelled its stiff-arm saluting leader Nikolaos Mihaloliakos and 17 others into Parliament in Athens in the wake of the Greek debt crisis.

A year on and the woman is Witness B,giving evidence used to arrest Mihaloliakos and five fellow Golden Dawn lawmakers. They have been charged with belonging to a criminal organisation involved in many offences including the stabbing last month of a left-wing rap artist.

“Abusing immigrants was fun,” Witness B told prosecutors last month of her days riding with a party motorcycle gang,according to a partial transcript of testimony included in prosecuto’ indictment submission.

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The party denies wrongdoing. Accusing the government of tactics not seen since the military junta of 40 years ago,it says it is being persecuted for its politics after standing up against a corrupt elite that has flung open its borders to cheap migrant labour.

Statements filed in court by purportedly penitent members of Golden Dawn paint a detailed picture of the inner workings of a group that spent three decades on the far fringes of politics before becoming the fifth biggest party last year. That picture is one of violence and intimidation not only against migrants but also within the party against dissenters or some who sought to leave.

“All this is nonsense,” said Pericles Stavrianakis,lawyer for Golden Dawn parliamentary spokesman Christos Pappas,who is among the six senior party officials charged.

Some witnesses tell of members admiring Hitler,though the party denies it is neo-Nazi. Its swastika-style flag and its slogan “Blood,Honour,Golden Dawn” are reminiscent of Nazi symbols and ideas,but these are not illegal in Greece.

Voters seem to be turning away from the party,though it remains a significant force. Opinion polls suggest its support has shrunk by a third in the past year,but still give it close to the 7 per cent it won in the June 2012 parliamentary ballot.

Like other protest movements across Europe,Golden Dawn — as well as the radical left party that came second in the Greek election — has seen support surge since the Euro zone debt crisis destroyed jobs and incomes.

The speed with which prosecutors brought charges after the rap artist’s killing,and government moves that could hurt Golden Dawn’s finances,have prompted some Greeks to suspect political motives in the case against an anti-establishment challenger. It has used its 18 votes in the 300-seat legislature to call for Greece to cancel massive foreign debts,attack the European Union and expel illegal immigrants — all policies with widespread appeal.

Centre-right Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has spoken out fiercely against Golden Dawn. And a new government Bill would cut off public funds to parties if leaders are charged with felonies.

Mihaloliakos,a 55-year-old former commando,founded the movement in the 1980s. The legal moves against him and his colleagues began after a street brawl in a working-class neighbourhood of Athens on September 17 that left rap artist Pavlos Fissas dead.

Yiorgos Roupakias,a truck driver held on a charge of manslaughter with intent,has pleaded that he acted in self-defence. Roupakias told police in an initial statement that he was a Golden Dawn member but later said he had only a “loose” connection to the party.

The outcry that followed the killing led to an order from Greece’s top court to investigate whether party members were involved in planning the violence and more than 30 other crimes. In that investigation,Mihaloliakos and two others remain in custody.

Pavlos Sarakis,lawyer for parliamentarians Ilias Kasidiaris and Ilias Panagiotaros,said neither had any link to Fissas’s stabbing and denied they were part of a criminal organisation. “All these accounts are monstrosities,a figment of imagination,” Sarakis said.

Mihaloliakos denied the charges in a statement. He said Golden Dawn was not a neo-Nazi movement. Greeks still recall Nazi occupation in World War II and Germany is a target of popular anger again over EU demands for austerity.

More than 4,00,000 people voted for Golden Dawn last year — over 20 times as many as in 2009. The criminal case being put together by investigating magistrates in Athens,however,focuses on the core of organisers and youth members who appear to number a few thousand nationwide and have been a small but vocal presence on the streets.

Often clad in black and marching with flags,Golden Dawn activists broadened their appeal with eye-catching initiatives,from wrecking the stalls of immigrant street vendors to handing out free food for Greek citizens only. Responding to concern that police were complacent,or even colluded with Golden Dawn,the government has now ordered another inquiry into the force.

Former party members who have come forward to testify to prosecutors say they regret joining in violent initiation rites,indoctrination and military-style training with knives and sticks. At least one admitted to being party to violence against fellow members and others.

To be an elite street-fighter earned the title ‘Cerberus’ — the “hell-hound” of Greek myth that guarded the Underworld.

Recalling “the faces of the people we tortured”,Witness C told prosecutors: “I still wake up at night and feel guilty.”

Witness E spoke of recruits being urged to read Hitler’s Mein Kampf,make Nazi-style salutes and support the overthrow of Greek democracy.

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Sarakis,the defence lawyer,said his clients deny that the party held any military-style training or carried out beatings. “A criminal organisation operates in the dark,has secret members and engages in illegal activities,” he said. “This does not correspond to a political party that has taken part in elections and whose activities are in the open.”

Renee Maltezou & Deepa Babington