Golden Dawn on Trial – an interview with Ilias Tsampardoukas

fyssas(Interview: Jacobin, 12/1/2016. Alp Kayserilioğlu is a freelance communist journalist in Greece. Ilias Tsampardoukas is a lawyer with Golden Dawn Watch, which monitors the ongoing legal case against the fascist party).

The trials against Golden Dawn (or Chrysi Avgi) have at last begun. In April 2015, sixty-nine individuals from the Greek fascist party were charged with founding a criminal organization, being a member of a criminal organization, performing criminal actions, and a number of other minor charges. The most serious of these charges relates to the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, a prominent left-wing activist and musician.

Two years ago, the party was at its peak; it was represented in parliament and felt powerful enough to carry out a range of violent attacks against migrants and leftists. Massive protests against the party, especially after the murder of Fyssas, forced the authorities to react. The first arrests of Golden Dawn members came in September 2013. Activists embedded in mass movements have been able to use the trials to illustrate the party’s violent and anti-democratic nature.

From the beginning Golden Dawn Watch has been there to monitor this legal process and educate the public about the situation. Freelance journalist and communist Alp Kayserilioğlu recently sat down with Golden Dawn Watch lawyer Ilias Tsampardoukas to discuss why Golden Dawn could grow undisturbed for so long, the basis of the trials, and the prospects for defeating fascism in Greece.

Could you tell us a bit about Golden Dawn Watch?

Golden Dawn Watch is a an initiative to monitor the trial against Golden Dawn, organized by the Hellenic League for Human Rights, the Greek Observatory against Fascism and Racist Speech in the Media, which works as part of the Educational Foundation of ESIEA (Journalists’ Union of Athens Daily Newspapers), the Antifascist League of Athens and Piraeus, and the City of Athens Migrants’ Integration Council and other antifascist and antiracist initiatives.

What Golden Dawn Watch basically does is to monitor the Chrysi Avgi/Golden Dawn (XA) trials and give an objective picture of what happens in the trials. We record everything that is said and done within the trials and publish it on our website. The records are also translated into English.

These trials are very important. We want the historian of the future to see and be able to understand what took place. But there is no big publicity concerning the trials although it is probably the most important trial in Greece since 1974.

Is your interest in making the Golden Dawn trials public only for the future historian?

There was a time when there was a long debate about what kind of an organization GD is and about its actions. Is it a neo-Nazi organization, is it a nationalist organization, or just another right-wing party; and are its actions legitimate or are GD members actually involved in gross violations of criminal law, such as attacks, beatings, and assassinations of immigrants and left-wing activists? Monitoring the trial gives the opportunity to look into real, hard, and undisputed evidence that comes out and go public with it.

The point is, as I said, that there is no big publicity concerning this trial. GD Watch, some freelance and newspaper journalists, and some blogs bring most of the information public and mass media — if it covers the trial at all — also uses these sources when doing reports on the trial.

However, I think that without this work the significance of the trial would be undermined.

What do you mean by “undermined”?

Well, Golden Dawn operated in secrecy though it was clear to everybody that this is a fascist and racist organization with all the consequences that comes from such a group.

But the mass media tried to cover up Golden Dawn and their crimes. Golden Dawn was portrayed in mass media just like any other political party since they also were in parliament. Their logic was: if Golden Dawn is just another normal political party, why should we worry so much about it in particular?

But a lot of things came out due to the trial relating to the operations of Golden Dawn, and we try to record this evidence and go public with it. Still you can see that the mass media doesn’t really cover the trials nor what they brought to light.

There is no mainstream television or radio coverage of the trials, only some journals that try to cover it a little. This wasn’t the case with any other trial that involved organized crime, rape, homicide, and the like; these trials were always covered by mass media.

Why do you think the mass media covered up the real nature of Golden Dawn and continues to act as though there is nothing special going on?

Well, I’d say they want to undermine the importance of the trial. Media outlets are also mostly private businesses, especially when they are mass media. Perhaps some of them have links with Golden Dawn; perhaps they think that Golden Dawn might be more useful in the future when they prefer an alternative to democracy and need somebody to smash the movements.

You mentioned earlier that the Golden Dawn trials are probably the most important trials in Greece since the end of the military junta in 1974. Why is that so?

Well with Golden Dawn we have a criminal organization that moves and operates in the guise of a political party. Golden Dawn has been involved in many very violent and sometimes deadly attacks on migrants and the movements. This is a big issue at the moment in Greece.

A successful conclusion of the trials, that is, a conviction of the accused, would have a major political impact. Already now we can see that they’re seriously weakened, whereas they were very strong around 2012. Recently a video of the Golden Dawn member of parliament (MP) Dimitrios Koukoutsis went viral; in it he denounces national socialism and says something along the lines of, “Fascism and Nazism are over for us now, we are now Greek nationalists; from now on there will be no more muscles but our discourse that we will try to put in the foreground.”

Of course convicting fascists before the court is not enough to fight fascism but it is a very important part of the struggle against it. Golden Dawn still tries to organize but it is completely failing at the moment and I think this has something to do with the trials and that they and their machinations are much more known to the people now. They have serious problems with continuing to do what they did earlier on.

Golden Dawn is not a party that sprang up overnight nor are their criminal or fascist elements new. In the nineties there was sometimes parliamentary discourse about whether Golden Dawn should be banned.

But in reality the authorities had no interest in prosecuting them until late 2013 with the assassination of Pavlos Fyssas, whose murder was part of a larger pattern of fascist violence against migrants etc. Why didn’t the state fight the Golden Dawn for so long and why does it do so now?

Golden Dawn is an old party, it stems from the 1980s and their leaders were and still are supporters of the dictatorship after the junta (1967–1974) fell. They had their first big chance in the nineties during the conflict with what is now internationally called the former Yugaslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

Back then, chauvinism fueled by the state was on the rise in Greece. Golden Dawn could have progressed in those days but they remained a fringe group. For example, until now, they completely failed in the universities. The rise of Golden Dawn in the nineties was blocked by a resurgence of left-wing radicalism in Greece which was particularly strong at the universities.

The next big incident involving Golden Dawn was in 1998 when former Golden Dawn member and deputy leader Antonis Androutsopolous (“Periandros”) tried to kill Dimitris Kousouris, a member of the central council of the National Students Union of Greece (EFEE), and Fotiadis and Karabatsolis who were supporting the struggle of the temporary teachers. Today Androutsopulos actually stands to the right of Golden Dawn, which he accuses of betraying the struggle.

Then the crisis hit Greece. Even though Golden Dawn is a political phenomenon and not an economic phenomenon, one of the main mechanisms underlying its rise is the crisis in Greece. Even before the crisis there were moderate racist and fascist parties legitimizing racist and facist speech if not street action. Once the crisis itself hit, racist speech and rhetoric also came to the forefront in the main systemic parties.

This all helped and legitimized the actions of Golden Dawn. However, the assassination of Pavlos Fyssas by a fascist hit squad on the night of September 18, 2013 was the turning point. Before the assassination, Golden Dawn had reached its peak, and began declining afterwards because of the prosecution.

Until then there was no prosecution, perhaps because Golden Dawn was directly or indirectly protected by the state, to be used as an useful instrument in the future. But things changed with the assassination of Pavlos Fyssas. He was not one of the “unknown immigrants” that so far had been the victims of Golden Dawn; he was a Greek. And of course he was a very well known leftist and antifascist rapper who didn’t belong to a particular organization but was well known for his leftist and antifascist stance.

This time, the state had to make a decisive move that had a major impact. The Left was also at its peak in 2013 and responded swiftly with massive demonstrations all over the country against Golden Dawn and the assassination of Pavlos Fyssas. I remember those days when we were on the streets.

It felt like December 2008 when the Left was massively on the street against the murder of Alexandros Grigoropoulos by the policeman Epaminondas Korkoneas. The state couldn’t take the risk of another December 2008 in 2013; they couldn’t cover it up anymore and started the trial against Golden Dawn.

What is the relation of Golden Dawn to various state apparatuses? It is said that they have a very strong base in the police force.

These aren’t rumors or speculations, we know very well that Golden Dawn has a massive electoral support of over 50 percent in the police force. The policemen are listed on separate voters’ lists and have their own ballot boxes in the departments where they are serving so we have a clear idea of what they vote.

Regarding the army, I think the relations are similar. Many Golden Dawn members are in the military and in the rank of officer. Kasidiaris’s brother for example is an officer in the army; he is a GD member and he is involved in a violent incident against an immigrant in Thessaloniki. Also many retired ex-officers are supporters or members of Golden Dawn. For example Deputy General Epitideios is elected in the European Parliament as a Golden Dawn MP.

Regarding judges and so on, I cannot say anything. But regarding professionals like doctors and teachers, I don’t think that they have too much of an influence.

Regarding trade unions, they never had a standing in them. Even at its peak, Golden Dawn didn’t manage to enter or influence trade unions. Where they tried to do this, for example in the Union of Transportation Workers of Athens, they were immediately thrown out. The trade unions proved to have strong reflexes in this matter.

How about the more “social” part of Golden Dawn’s street activities? They were distributing food to poor people and doing blood donations. Did these actions contribute to their rise and help them gain a stronger social basis?

Well yes, they did their “social” street activities, but they were all based on racist motives. They tried to do blood donations only for Greeks once but they didn’t succeed too well since most of the hospitals they applied to rejected their action. Also they did some food distribution, again only for Greeks, but these also weren’t that successful. If you ask me, I think they made much less of an impact as they themselves like to present it.

So why was Pavlos Fyssas assassinated? Why was he targeted by the fascists?

First of all it has to do with Piraeus, the area in which the assassination took place. Piraeus is a port and a very strong working-class area. At the same time, Piraeus also is a stronghold of the Left, especially of the communist trade union front PAME which is close to the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). In fact, a couple of days before Golden Dawn assassinated Pavlos, they launched a murderous attack on PAME activists in Piraeus. Luckily, nobody died.

But attacking the PAME trade unionists and several days later assassinating Pavlos Fyssas were obviously part of a strategy of Golden Dawn to move forward; it was already strong in Piraeus and wanted to take it over from the Left. I think they also wanted to prove to the big bosses in Piraeus that they can throw out the communists, leftists, and trade unions there.

Just a couple of days before Golden Dawn attacked the PAME and assassinated Pavlos Fyssas, MP Ioannis Lagos of Golden Dawn openly said: “We will throw out the communists from Piraeus because they block the development of the region with their trade unions and strikes.”

Regarding Pavlos: as I said, he was well known in the area through his leftist and antifascist music. He was living and was very active in Piraeus and people knew him. It is crystal clear that he was targeted by Golden Dawn and the assassinator, Giorgos Roupakias, executed a clear assassination command. It was no accident, Roupakias didn’t stab Pavlos by accident or chance.

Just look at how the assassination took place: in the late evening of September 17, 2013, Pavlos Fyssas and six of his friends leave the café where they were watching a soccer game. The moment they go out of the café, around twenty fascists are on the other side of the street yelling at them and following them. Pavlos and his friends turn the corner while the fascists are still following them.

Then the fascists run towards them to assault them. Pavlos shouts “run!” to his friends, and most of them run away, but two of his friends remain with him while they are assaulted by the fascists. A group of fascists assaults them, while another group builds a circle around them to hinder anybody from intervening.

At precisely this moment, Roupakias drives his car to this group, stops it next to the group, gets out of the car and directly walks towards Pavlos. He doesn’t walk towards the other two friends of Pavlos, his objective is very clear. He knows who Pavlos is and that he has to hit him, he doesn’t care about the other two. Pavlos and each of his remaining two friends are blocked by the fascists with two fascists holding one person each from both sides.

Roupakias comes from the back, puts a stranglehold on Pavlos with his left arm, takes out the knife with his right and stabs Pavlos into his right leg to hit the artery and stabs him a second and third, decisive time in the heart to be sure to get him. He takes out the knife and walks back again to his car. He gets arrested while trying to get away. Until then, no police intervene.

To sum it up: the assassination was organized and planned to the last step. The only coincidence may have been day and time. Pavlos and his friends might not have went to that café to watch the soccer game that day at that time. But I think Golden Dawn would’ve attempted to assassinate Pavlos Fyssas in any case.

Let us talk a bit about the legal framework of the trial itself. According to the Greek constitution, it is forbidden to ban political parties. What is the specific allegation versus the defendants?

Yes, Golden Dawn operates as a political party but it is not the political party nor its lawful activities that are being prosecuted itself. What is actually prosecuted are specific persons accused of conducting certain criminal activities such as entering and/or directing a criminal organization, launching attacks, and committing homicide.

Don’t you think that the organized criminal activity of Golden Dawn, including murder and planned assassination, can only be understood if it is seen as a logical consequence of their very political and ideological stance as fascists? Shouldn’t it be the ideological and political formation of these fascists that should be prosecuted in the first instance instead of the effects, of what follows logically out of their fascist identity?

Of course I think that their organized criminal activity follows from their fascist identity. But I’m not sure if there is in Greece today a legal possibility to ban a political party. There is very new legislation that criminalizes hate speech and so on. But the Greek state’s juridical apparatus is very reluctant with this new legislation.

For example, despite the fact that the Greek law recognizes racist motive as an aggravating circumstance, all these years there has been only one conviction: in the case of the assassination of the Pakistani immigrant Shahzad Luqman, where the court recognized that the defendants acted with racist motives. That’s when it became apparent to related courts that other attacks on immigrants had racist motives.

However, while we might have no legal ability in Greece today to ban political parties such as Golden Dawn, maybe we should begin to think of reforming the legal framework so as to make such bans possible. I personally think like you do that the Golden Dawn as a political party should be banned.

Could you tell us a bit about the history of the trial and where we are right now?

A couple of days after the assassination of Pavlos Fyssas, that is on September 28, 2013, anti-terror squads of the police conducted massive raids against Golden Dawn and arrested their leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos and several prominent members on charges of directing a criminal organization. The number of arrests grew and by now there are sixty-nine individuals on trial.

Some are charged with creating a criminal organization, some of entering the criminal organization later on, and some for the actual criminal actions. Some are accused of more minor crimes such as possessing weapons. There are three main issues that make up the dossier: the attack on PAME activists on September 12, 2013 in Perama with clearly homicidal intentions, the assassination of Pavlos Fyssas on the night of September 18, 2013, and a massive attack on Egyptian fishermen again in Perama on the night of September 18, 2012.

The two magistrates Ioanna Klapa and Maria Dimitropoulou were assigned to investigate the activities of Golden Dawn; over nine months they gathered a massive amount of materials and evidence for the trial. They handed their investigation to the prosecutor Isidoros Dogiakos who again took his time to come to a conclusion. He then applied to the judicial council of the Athens Appeals Court to conduct the trial; which in turn decided in February 2015 that the aforementioned sixty-nine individuals would be tried.

When the trial itself began on April 20, 2015, most of the accused were out of jail again since the maximum period of imprisonment on remand is eighteen months in Greece. The killer of Pavlos Fyssas, Giorgos Roupakias, will be released towards February 2016 if the trial doesn’t come to a conclusion by then. However I think that this is going to be a very long trial and it might take up another year or so until it comes to a conclusion.

The trial still takes place in the high security prison of Korydallos where the suspects were imprisoned for some time. The civil action tries to change this and relocate the trial to Leoforos Alexandras where the Supreme Judicial Court is located. Korydallos is far away from the center and it’s a high security prison whereby the Supreme Judicial Court is located in the center and is a proper court. But the ministry is still denying relocation the trial on the grounds that there are no suitable rooms there.

The first ten to fifteen court sessions were mostly concerned with administrative issues; we can say that the real trial began one or two months ago. So far we had, I think, around ten witness testimonies including the friends of Pavlos Fyssas, police officers, owners of a coffee shop nearby the crime scene, and the parents of Pavlos Fyssas.

In the last days we had two important testimonies by two women that were by chance direct eyewitnesses to the assassination of Pavlos Fyssas since they were sitting on a bench on the other side of the crime scene. They could clearly identify the killer Roupakias and the body type of his co-driver Kazantzoglou and that they acted in an organized manner, that the assassination was not an accident.

A proposal of the defendants’ lawyers for cross examining these two women with the testimonies of some police officers is pending and the judge made clear that this is to be decided after the testimonies of all the witnesses related to Pavlos Fyssas case are completed.

I was present at a sitting of the court on December 4, and the fascist lawyers assaulted me and several others. Before that they tried to intimidate a fellow journalist because he was taking photographs. At the December 2 session, the co-driver of the car, Kazantzoglou, openly threatened the eyewitness Dimitra Zorzou who testified against him, saying, “Look at me carefully, is that me you saw that night? Let’s go outside of the courtroom and solve this matter!” I had the impression that this intimidation is one of the main tactics of the defense.

There was also an incident on the first day of the trial. Antifascist organizations as much as Golden Dawn itself had mobilized to the court and some friends of Pavlos Fyssas were attacked by fascists in the area where the trial takes place.

So I guess those fascists just can’t stop being fascists. But things aren’t going so well for them, the evidence is very strong in support of the prosecution and their defense is, in my personal opinion as a lawyer, very weak. I don’t think they stand too much of a chance and I don’t think they can and will continue their intimidation efforts. I think their ability to intimidate is not as strong as they’d like it to be.

So far I personally I have never felt unsafe monitoring the trials. They don’t have the support they thought they’d have. At the moment, inside and outside of the court you will, apart from those involved in the trial, see only journalists, antifascists, policemen, secret service, and family members and friends of Pavlos.

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