Greek neo-Nazi chief to take the stand in landmark murder trial

Hélène COLLIOPOULOU
A memorial has been put up in Athens for the Greek rap singer Pavlos Fyssas, who was stabbed to death in 2013

A landmark murder trial implicating Greece's neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn reaches a key moment on Wednesday when party leader and founder Nikos Michaloliakos is due to testify for the first time.

The 61-year-old Holocaust denier is one of nearly 70 defendants facing sentences of five to 20 years in prison.

The main charge against them is participation in a criminal organisation, in addition to a host of other indictments related to murder and assault.

Michaloliakos himself is charged as the moral instigator of a wave of violence that culminated in the fatal stabbing in September 2013 of 34-year-old rapper Pavlos Fyssas, a self-declared enemy of the group.

The trial has lasted this long because of the sheer number of defendants and witnesses and the complexity of the case.

Four years in, the court has logged nearly 400 days, 350 witnesses, drawn in dozens of lawyers on both sides and a file 1.5 terabytes in size. Lawyers expect it to be over by the end of the year.

But whatever the eventual verdict in this complex case, the fortunes of the party have already suffered, falling a long way from their electoral breakthrough in 2012.

- 'Blood and honour' -

In 2012-2013, Golden Dawn attack squads roamed the streets, assaulting migrants and political opponents.

Testifying in September 2015, Fyssas' father said his son had been ambushed by around 60 Golden Dawn members outside a cafeteria.

Based on records of phone conversations between Golden Dawn members the night he was murdered, prosecutors argue the attack was carried out with the knowledge of senior party members.

They also say that this was part of a broader pattern of violence organised by the party and senior members authorised the beatings of Egyptian fishermen in 2012, and of communist trade unionists in 2013.

The defendants deny this, insisting that they are being persecuted for their political beliefs. Last week in court, one defendant even accused the authorities of fabricating the evidence against them.

After a wave of arrests in 2013, a search of party members' homes uncovered firearms and other weapons, as well as Nazi and fascist memorabilia.

Much of that came from the home of deputy leader Christos Pappas, where police found swastika flags, two German army helmets and bottles stamped with images of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

Prosecutors have also drawn on speeches by Michaloliakos and other senior party officials to build their case.

"Our goal is to liberate Greece from foreigners and traitors," Michaloliakos said in a 2012 speech.

The party has denied claims by investigating magistrates that their organisational structure emulated that of the Nazi party.

But for years, the party's main slogan was "Blood, Honour, Golden Dawn", echoing the "Blood and Honour" slogan once used by the Hitler Youth.

- Rise and fall -

Golden Dawn was founded in the mid-1980s by Michaloliakos. A decade earlier he had been handpicked by ex-Greek dictator Georgios Papadopoulos to lead a far-right youth group after the fall of the junta in 1974.

For years, it operated as a semi-clandestine group on the political fringe.

Then in 2012, on the back of widespread anger over immigration and an austerity programme imposed by the European Union, they won 18 seats in the 300-seat parliament -- on 10 percent of the vote.

But in 2013 the investigation into the murder of Fyssas was launched. Leading Golden Dawn figures including Michaloliakos were placed in pre-trial detention -- though after 18 months, the law required their release.

At the height of its popularity in 2015, Golden Dawn was Greece's third-strongest party with over 370,000 votes.

But the party's fortunes collapsed in July's general election. For the first time in seven years, they failed to win a parliamentary seat.

The long trial has taken its toll, says Chryssa Papadopoulou, a lawyer for the Fyssas family.

"It showed society the way in which (Golden Dawn) was organised and centrally run by the leadership," she told AFP.

"A criminal organisation stays compact so long as its leadership is free from pressure....in a military-type organisation, the soldiers are expendable and all that matters is to exonerate the leader," she said.