NEWS

In the shadow of Greek prison, locals dread Golden Dawn trial

They have learned to live with over 2,000 prisoners on their doorstep, some of them notorious extremists and hardened killers.

But for those with homes and businesses situated beneath the high walls of the Korydallos prison, the country’s leading correctional facility, hosting Greece’s biggest trial in over a decade is too much.

On April 20, a special court inside Korydallos will convene for the Golden Dawn trial, the culmination of a mass probe implicating nearly 70 members and alleged supporters of Greece’s neo-Nazi party.

After a 15-month investigation, state prosecutors will try to prove that the aggressive anti-immigrant group operated as a criminal organisation under a military-style leadership that allegedly encouraged the beating — and possibly the killing — of migrants and political opponents.

Under the command of party founder Nikos Michaloliakos, a 58-year-old disgraced former officer cadet, Golden Dawn has already been linked by investigating magistrates to at least two murders.

Local officials are bracing for trouble, noting that anti-fascist groups have already called protests for the start of the trial.

“The trial cannot and must not be held here,” Korydallos’ mayor Stavros Kasimatis told AFP.

“This is Greece’s biggest trial in 40 years. It will last at least 18 months. There will be gatherings by anti-fascist groups, and Golden Dawn supporters will perhaps muster as well.”

Anti-fascist groups, political parties and unions say they will hold a demonstration outside the prison on the opening day.

Kasimatis said that to keep rival groups apart, the police will probably be forced to erect barriers on one of Korydallos’ main streets, just a few metres from the district’s central school complex and nurseries.

“How can the city possibly operate under these conditions?” asked Kasimatis, who has the support of his neighbouring mayors and local lawmakers.

Korydallos prison last hosted a trial of this magnitude over a decade ago, when the authorities dismantled the far-left extremist group November 17.

But whereas few spoke out in defence of suspected extremists at the time, Golden Dawn is a legitimate parliamentary party that can bring in supporters from across the country, the mayor notes.

Wherever Golden Dawn members have appeared in court for other cases in recent months, dozens of supporters have been stationed inside and outside the courtroom in a bid to intimidate witnesses, anti-fascist groups say.

Last month, the trial of Golden Dawn’s spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris, who was accused of striking a female Communist lawmaker, had to be interrupted when party supporters heckled the victim.

“Golden Dawn members usually cram (into) the courtroom from dawn. We do not want this to happen, and will take all necessary measures to prevent it,” anti-fascist activist Takis Giannopoulos told AFP.

Justice Minister Nikos Paraskevopoulos last month admitted in parliament that the choice of venue was “problematic” as the makeshift courtroom inside the Korydallos female inmates’ wing was too small to handle the global interest in the trial.

“Right now there is no alternative option,” Paraskevopoulos said, but he left open the possibility of a break in the proceedings after the first day, until a suitable solution is found.

The trial, to be conducted by a panel of three judges, follows a 15-month investigation sparked by the fatal stabbing of Greek anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas by a Golden Dawn supporter in September 2013.

The group was later also linked to the murder of a Pakistani immigrant and beatings of political opponents.

The defendants at the trial include Michaloliakos and around a dozen Golden Dawn parliamentary lawmakers.

Most face charges of membership in a criminal organisation, a serious offence in Greece. Others are accused of murder, conspiracy to murder, possession of weapons and racist violence.

Some of the defendants, who include police officers, face sentences of up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

The openly xenophobic and anti-Semitic Golden Dawn party was for years a semi-clandestine group on the fringes of Greek politics.

But in 2012 the party exploited widespread anger over immigration and austerity reforms prompted by Greece’s financial crisis and won 18 seats in parliament.

Although its members had been known to patrol the streets, carrying out attacks on foreigners, the party rarely faced sanctions until the murder of rapper Fyssas.

Michaloliakos and a number of others were arrested, and a subsequent search of party members’ homes uncovered firearms and other weapons, as well Nazi and fascist memorabilia.

Golden Dawn rejects the accusations as politically motivated and the group held on to its support base in January’s general election when it finished third, winning 17 seats in the 300-member legislature.

[AFP]