ATHENS—In the depths of Greece’s economic crisis, members of the fascist movement Golden Dawn brazenly assaulted immigrants, political opponents and labor unionists. After a member killed a left-wing rap artist in front of witnesses and confessed, Greek authorities acted, prosecuting the party as a criminal organization.
Nearly six years later, the trial of Golden Dawn has stalled in a case that highlights Greece’s dysfunctional justice system. The party, known for its stiff-armed salutes, swastika-like flag and black-uniformed street gangs, is regaining confidence by one measure: Rights activists say Golden Dawn street violence is on the rise.
Golden Dawn is one of the most extreme political movements to emerge strengthened from Europe’s decade of crises. The party, founded 1993, emerged from a tiny sect of Hitler enthusiasts, whose activists were known for violence against minorities and left-wingers, but which barely registered at the ballot box.
That changed in 2012, when Greek voters’ rage against their established political parties boosted radical groups of the right and left. Golden Dawn won 21 of 300 seats in parliament, and now maintains around 8% public support in opinion polls. Its persistence, despite its thinly disguised neo-Nazi leanings, has shocked many people in a nation that suffered deeply under Nazi occupation in World War II.
Greek authorities took little action against Golden Dawn until one night in late 2013, when a group of members hunted down antifascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas in the streets of Piraeus, and one party member stabbed him to death, according to police and witness testimony and his confession. Police found that the group in the street had been in contact by mobile phone with party leaders.
The investigation brought to light the extent of Golden Dawn leaders’ infatuation with Nazism, including publicly released photos of them performing the Nazi salutes in front of portraits of Hitler.
Prosecutors added the stabbing to dozens of other criminal complaints against Golden Dawn and indicted 68 members, including the entire top leadership, for murder, attempted murder, possessing illegal weapons, racist violence, money laundering and running a criminal organization.
“The Golden Dawn trial is the biggest trial of a fascist criminal organization since the Nuremberg trial,” said Thanasis Kampagiannis, a prosecutor on the case. “Their conviction will give the first signal for the isolation of fascist forces around Europe.”
But any verdict is around a year away, he admits—if all goes well.
The trial was supposed to last 18 months. Instead, it has moved at a snail’s pace. For long periods, the Athens court couldn’t find an adequate room or personnel for the hearings. A strike by Greece’s union of lawyers froze proceedings for six months in 2016. For long periods, the court was unable to provide a projector to show photographic and video evidence. At one point, sessions were canceled because there was no heating.
Golden Dawn’s attorneys have also slowed proceedings by submitting thousands of documents, which prosecutors complain are irrelevant and aim merely at causing delays. Golden Dawn denies any wrongdoing and says it wants to trial to be completed soon. It says all its members will eventually be acquitted, including of Mr. Fyssas’s fatal stabbing.
“Fyssas’s murder was also Golden Dawn’s attempted murder,” said Ilias Kasidiaris, a Golden Dawn member of Greece’s parliament. “The trial kept the party from growing, but it didn’t manage to destroy us.”
Golden Dawn’s leaders have been released from custody because the trial has taken so long. The party is gearing up for European and local elections this month, where polls indicate it could gain seats and come in third behind the major conservative and left parties.
Greece’s sclerotic justice system isn’t only frustrating efforts to crack down on notoriously violent extremists. It is also one of the biggest hurdles to Greece cleaning up its chronic corruption problem and attracting international investment.
“Since October there has been a real effort to deal with the technical issues,” Greek Justice Minister Michael Kalogirou said in an interview. “There is now a room appropriate for the trial, the judges are exclusively working on this case, and we now have the maximum number of monthly hearings possible.”
Golden Dawn’s Mr. Kasidiaris, who is running for mayor of Athens in elections, knows he’s unlikely to win. But even second place would show that Golden Dawn is back, and can win elections in future, Mr. Kasidiaris said.
As the trial stalls, Golden Dawn’s black-clad activists are returning to the street violence against ethnic minorities and political opponents that made the movement notorious at the height of Greece’s economic crisis, according to police data, rights groups and migration communities.
“The attack squads are back, partly because they are confident that they won’t be sentenced in the end,” said Javied Aslam, president of the Pakistani community in Greece. Dozens of people in his community have reported being the victims of racist attacks in recent months, he said, with many of the attacks being carried out by Golden Dawn activists, wearing their characteristic black attire or chanting party slogans.
Among other incidents, police are investigating two attacks in early March on reception centers for asylum seekers, in which two children were taken to the hospital. Police have identified some of those allegedly involved in the attacks as Golden Dawn members who have participated in racist attacks in the past.
In late March, police arrested 12 suspected Golden Dawn members for throwing gasoline bombs at police during a parade by schoolchildren for Greece’s Independence Day. One of the suspects, a known Golden Dawn member who appears in photographs of party events, had been arrested only a week earlier for assaulting a Pakistani immigrant.
Mr. Kasidiaris said Golden Dawn has nothing to do with any of the incidents and has told its members firmly that it opposes violent acts.
Even one of the prosecutors in the trial, Eleftheria Tombatzoglou, has been assaulted, at a cultural center in Piraeus where she volunteers. Men dressed in black attacked the center’s staff with crowbars and smoke canisters, she said. She needed seven stitches to her head.
“They left chanting: ‘Blood, Honor, Golden Dawn’,” she said.
Write to Nektaria Stamouli at [email protected]