Three senior lawmakers from Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn who were released from pre-trial detention while facing an array of charges including murder, extortion and money laundering stormed out in anger, with one of them, party spokesman, punching and kicking photographers while they shouted triumphantly.
Some 32 people have been arrested, including party leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos and his second-in-command, Christos Pappas, also both MP’s, who were due in court on Oct. 3 on charges of running a criminal gang.
The release of three of four MP’s, with one still held, was seen as a huge setback for the government’s attempt to break up the party with legal means in the wake of the murder of an anti-fascist for which one of its members was taken into custody.
The decision to free the men after a marathon, 18-hour court session raises questions about how strong the state’s case against Golden Dawn is, some analysts said, and it even raised the notion that Justice Minister Haralambos Athanasiou might be forced out, although he denied he would resign.
Party spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris and fellow lawmakers Ilias Panagiotaros and Nikos Michos stormed out of the court to cheers of “bravo” from supporters. They shoved journalists out of the way before hailing a taxi.
“We will not back down!” Michos shouted. “You can only stop us with bullets. Even from the grave, we will rise up – know this well!” A fourth Golden Dawn legislator, Yannis Lagos, was ordered to be kept in detention. All four denied charges against them.
Kasidiaris was released on bail of 50,000 euros ($67,600) while he, Michos and Ilias Panagiotaros were ordered not to leave Greece.
“Golden Dawn, now stronger and more determined than ever, will continue its legal political struggle to free our land and people from the international loan sharks and domestic servants of foreigners,” the party said on its website. “Golden Dawn will not die – Greece will be victorious!” it added.
They have been charged on what prosecutors say is evidence linking the party with a series of attacks, including the stabbing of rapper Pavlos Fissas on Sept. 17 and the killing of an immigrant earlier this year. A trial date has not been set.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ government has vowed to wipe out a party of “Nazi descendents” but said he would not try to have it outlawed as Golden Dawn has 18 seats in Parliament and the Constitution prohibits banning political parties. The MP’s are also still being paid while facing charges.
Samaras earlier this year rejected a bill to increase penalties for hate crimes which led critics to say he was mollycoddling Golden Dawn in a bid to win some of its voters for his New Democracy Conservatives and slow the extremists rise in the polls.
After that backfired and the neo-Nazis went on a rampage of violence, he said he will now reintroduce the legislation and try to cut off the party’s state funding.
The move to crack down on an elected political party – the first time since a military coup in Greece in 1967 – has shocked Greeks, and the three senior lawmakers’ release comes as a surprise boost to a party that had been pushed on the defensive since the rapper’s killing.
“The judicial investigation is continuing, the evidence is there, there are charges for criminal acts and this should not be forgotten,” Interior Minister Yannis Michelakis told Greek TV.
Responding to the charges against him behind closed doors, Kasidiaris, who was allowed to use a cell phone in violation of the law, denied before the magistrate that the party had paramilitary-like “storm troops” trained by him, a court official said on condition of anonymity, Reuters reported and that he was a victim of political persecution.
Golden Dawn had capitalized on Greeks’ anger to crushing austerity measures imposed by the government on the orders of international lenders and by blaming immigrants for rising crime. The party denied it was connected to scores of assaults of beatings of immigrants and violence toward leftists, Communists and gays.
After the killing of hip-hop artist Pavlos Fyssas on Sept. 17, for which one of its members was arrested, anti-Golden Dawn protests grew and the party’s popularity, which had grown from 6.97 percent of the vote when it was elected into office in June 2012 to nearly double that, fell 2.5 percent overnight.
Nazi memorabilia, including flags, helmets with swastikas and portraits of Adolph Hitler, have been found in the homes of arrested members but the party rejects the neo-Nazi label.
“The social and political front against Nazism and their proponents is a given and it is united,” the government’s spokesman, Simos Kedikoglou, said in a statement.
Golden Dawn, which the government has described as a “Nazi creation,” rose from the margins of Greece’s political scene to become the third most popular party in Greece amid the country’s severe financial crisis. It has long been blamed for a series of violent attacks, mostly against immigrants.
“There’s political motivation hidden behind this,” Kasidiaris’ lawyer Pavlos Sarakis said of the case against his client. Sarakis was expelled from Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ New Democracy party after he took the case to defend the Golden Dawn spokesman.
“It is clear that the judiciary has refused to follow the orders of a government enslaved to foreigners,” the party said in an online statement after the decision to free three of the four lawmakers. “The unconstitutional, blatantly illegal government conspiracy is collapsing under the huge weight of truth and common sense.”
Thirty-two arrest warrants were issued in the case, including two for police officers. Authorities have been continuing raids on the homes of police officers with suspected ties to criminal activities allegedly linked to the party.