What “the biggest trial of fascist criminality since Nuremberg” means for the future of Greece

diki-xrysi-avgi_ahmedSlow progress has been made on Greece’s most important criminal trial to date but the outcome will determine a lot.

(Author: Will Horner, Open Democracy, 17/11/2016)

Greece hasn’t exactly been out of the headlines lately. The small nation has been front and centre of the European sovereign debt crisis and more recently the refugee crisis.

But what many might not know is that it’s also currently conducting one of the biggest criminal trials in its history, one that has huge ramifications for the future course of the European Union and the refugee crisis.

It’s what Thanassis Kampagiannis, a member of the prosecution, calls “the biggest trial of fascist criminality since Nuremberg.”

The trial of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party involves a total of 69 defendants, including 18 members of parliament, and is predicted to take a total of two and a half years to complete.

“In all European legal systems,” Kampagiannis says, “we have had trials of fascists or fascist crimes but we have not since the end of the Second World War had a trial of a fascist criminal organisation which is also a party, which has MPs, so it is very important.”

The trial consists of three primary charges, two attempted murders, one murder, as well as a litany of other alleged offences involving assault, arson, fraud, racketeering, weapons charges and burglary.

The overarching charge however is that these incidents were not the actions of individuals operating on their own initiative but were directly planned and ordered by the party leadership. Golden Dawn denies having orchestrated attacks and claims to be the victim of political persecution.

What’s more, the trial has been hit by a number of setbacks which have shaken public confidence in it. Not only is it predicted to last 18 months longer than planned, but defendants regularly fail to attend court and until recently proceedings were conducted in an inadequate makeshift courtroom.

“First, there was rainwater leaking in the room and then the microphones weren’t working,” explains Electra Alexandropoulou, the coordinator of Golden Dawn Watch, a monitoring group set up to follow and provide information about the trial.

But the biggest problem was that witnesses, family members, journalists, defendants and supporters of Golden Dawn all sat together in a cramped public gallery.

“There was no protection of the witnesses and of course there were cases of intimidation. There were threats of violence and in this small courtroom you are afraid,” says Alexandropoulou.

The rise of Golden Dawn from a fringe political party in the early 90s, which openly praised Hitler and National Socialism and mustered 0.1% in elections in 1996, to become Greece’s third biggest political party, with 18 MPs and the support of around 400,000 Greeks is nothing short of astounding.

Golden Dawn’s support began rising in 2011. Its vitriolic right-wing and anti-immigrant rhetoric, given prominent air-time by sections of the media, appealed to some in Greek society who had been badly hit by Greece’s economic collapse and stringent austerity measures.

“They all had something in their hands, brass knuckles, wooden sticks with metal tips or just rocks.”

With this rise came a wave of street activity. According to the Racist Violence Recording Network (RVRN), 2012 saw an explosion of racist attacks. The majority of these were carried out at night by organised “patrols” who roamed neighbourhoods attacking migrants and refugees.

One such attack on June 12, 2012 is one of the three central cases of the current trial. Four men stand accused of attempted murder when a gang attacked the home of a group of Egyptian migrants.

One man, Ebarak Abu Zeid, was beaten, eyewitnesses claim, with iron bars and wooden clubs. “The attack was ferocious,” says Kampagiannis, who is currently representing Abu Zeid, “he nearly died. For six months he was eating non-solid food.”

In October Saad Abu Hamed, who was in the house at the time of the attack, told the court the gang shouted “open up, assholes. We are here to teach you what Golden Dawn is.”

Describing to judges the moment he found his injured friend he said “he couldn’t speak because his mouth was filled with blood. His jaw was snapped and his teeth broken.”

The second central charge shows, prosecutors claim, that it wasn’t only migrants and refugees who were the target of Golden Dawn but also the Greek left. Four Golden Dawn members are accused of attempted murder for a September 12 2013 attack on twenty members of PAME, a communist-affiliated trade union.

One victim of that attack Panagiotis Goutis described to judges on Friday how 50 men approached the group silently and suddenly “like cats” and encircled the trade-unionists as they were putting up posters in the Athens neighbourhood of Perama.

“They seemed trained, exactly as an army regiment is trained to fight,” he said. “They all had something in their hands, brass knuckles, wooden sticks with metal tips or just rocks.”

Two men approached and told the President of the local branch, whom they addressed by name that “Golden Dawn are in control of this neighbourhood now, and you will get lost.” According to Goutis, as the two men turned their backs the attack begun, in which 8 were hospitalised.

The third charge came just a few days later and put an abrupt halt to the party’s rise. Pavlos Fyssas, aka Killah P, a well-known anti-fascist rapper, was murdered by Giorgos Roupakias, a Golden Dawn member and a deputy of the local branch leader, on 17 September 2013.

“It’s not a good situation for the refugees now but imagine if on top of that you had Golden Dawn unleashed.”

According to eyewitnesses, Fyssas who was watching a football match with his friends was surrounded by a gang of men, some of whom pinned him to the floor whilst Roupakias stabbed him to death.

A photograph of a wounded Fyssas as he lay dying in the arms of his girlfriend shocked the nation. After much public outcry and a wave of protests across Greece, police swooped and arrested scores of party members and employees, including all 18 MPs. In raids on the homes of the party leaders police uncovered illegal firearms as well as Nazi and SS memorabilia and paintings of Hitler and Mussolini.

The arrests of September 2013 led to a sudden drop in incidents of racist violence. At the end of 2013 the RVRN concluded that the decrease “during the critical period after the murder of Pavlos Fyssas and the arrest of leading members of Golden Dawn” was strong enough evidence to support the existence of anti-migrant hit squads operating in Greece against which “the Greek State was unfortunately too slow to take action.”

However, with the refugee crisis having since hit the country, the drop in racist attacks and the trial of Golden Dawn couldn’t have come soon enough. The situation for the 60,000 refugees currently stuck in Greece is far from good, but for Kampagiannis the trial of Golden Dawn has prevented a bad situation becoming worse.

“The fact that there is a prosecution right now,” he says, “and there is this danger for Golden Dawn of being convicted means that we have not had hit squads of Golden Dawn attacking refugees at night.”

“It’s not a good situation for the refugees now but imagine if on top of that you had Golden Dawn unleashed.”

With no solution to the crisis in sight and tensions at refugee camps increasing, the outcome of the trial will be highly significant for Greece, and Europe’s, future.

If Golden Dawn’s leadership are acquitted of directing criminal acts then their claim to be victims of political persecution will be vindicated in the eyes of many and the party could come back stronger, bolder and with more public support.

“It will have huge repercussion for politics and for real life in Greece in all kinds of ways,” says Kampagiannis. “It will mean a new explosion of fascist criminality against immigrant and refugees, there’s no doubt about that, but also against political opponents of Golden Dawn.”

“It will be a decision that the most neo-Nazi party in Europe will have a central political role in the years and decades to come in a European country. This is how high the stakes are.”

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