Greek neo-Nazis retain swagger despite two-year trial

Catherine BOITARD
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Golden Dawn remains a strong political force with the fourth biggest number of seats in parliament

Nearly two years in the dock over an anti-fascist rapper's murder have done little to blunt the swagger of Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn.

The ultranationalist party remains the fourth largest in parliament, and the Greek authorities continue to grapple with how to confront the aggressive actions of many of its leading cadres.

Thirteen Golden Dawn lawmakers -- and another four ex-MPs -- have been on trial since April 2015 accused of membership of a criminal organisation over the fatal stabbing of rapper Pavlos Fyssas in a street clash in 2013.

Fyssas's murder shocked the country and sparked an investigation into the actions of Golden Dawn, which until then had not faced justice despite being linked to a campaign of violence against migrants and political opponents.

First elected to parliament in January 2012, Golden Dawn's lawmakers continue to occupy an ambiguous role in a country that for years denied it had a problem with racism.

In January, Golden Dawn lawmaker Yiannis Lagos stormed into a school in his local Athens constituency of Piraeus to protest at the teaching of refugee children on the premises.

Another lawmaker, Panagiotis Iliopoulos of Volos, was photographed brandishing a wooden rod outside a local TV station where a protest against his party was taking place last week.

- 'Lack of coherence' -

In the Fyssas trial, the prosecution is trying to prove that Golden Dawn operated as a full-blown, tightly regimented criminal outfit that allegedly encouraged beatings and even killings.

But the Greek authorities appear unable to take firm action against party members who have not been convicted of any crimes.

In December, for example, Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos, head of the nationalist Independent Greeks (ANEL) party, was not able to prevent a neo-Nazi delegation from making a "patriotic" visit to islands facing Turkey.

The delegation included Golden Dawn's chief ideologue Christos Pappas -- a noted admirer of Hitler -- and party spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris, who has a swastika tattoo on his arm.

"There is a lack of coherence in the state's response," said Costis Papaioannou, a professor and activist who was until recently the justice ministry's general secretary for human rights.

The trial "keeps pressure on the party but also sends the message that state institutions are not very alert to the problem", he told AFP.

- 'No lines to follow' -

"When it comes to deciding what to do with a parliamentary party whose leadership is on trial for crimes, there are no definite lines to follow," added Papaioannou, who has written a book on Golden Dawn.

Pappas, Lagos, Kasidiaris and Iliopoulos are among the 13 Golden Dawn members on trial including party chief Nikos Michaloliakos. Another four defendants are either no longer MPs or have left the party.

Thanassis Kabayiannis, one of the prosecution lawyers, says the ambiguity has given the accused "room for manoeuvre".

In recent weeks, Golden Dawn lawmakers -- including some of those on trial -- have travelled to Greek islands hosting large populations of refugees to whip up anti-foreigner sentiment.

But other commentators say the murder trial has nevertheless put a lid on the party's momentum, limiting its popularity to around seven percent in opinion polls.

"For the first time, we see a kind of sanitary cordon put in place" against Golden Dawn, said Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political scientist who has also studied the group.

And there are other signs that it is losing clout.

At a February demonstration against austerity measures staged by police, generally seen as some of the party's most enthusiastic supporters, police union members asked Golden Dawn MPs to leave.

And a court in the western city of Patras acquitted the local Communist mayor who refused to grant the party municipal space in the last electoral campaign.

Golden Dawn's top leaders were arrested in 2013 immediately after Fyssas's death but were eventually released after a maximum 18 months in pre-trial detention.

Even the man who confessed to stabbing Fyssas, retired truck driver Yiorgos Roupakias, was conditionally released a year ago.

In the last parliamentary election in September 2015, the neo-Nazis lost about 9,000 votes nationwide from their tally in the previous vote in January, but still finished third with 18 lawmakers.

Golden Dawn recently dropped to 17 lawmakers and fourth place in parliament behind the Socialists after one of its MPs defected over a local constituency row.