A Greek court ruled on Wednesday that the far-right Golden Dawn party was operating as a criminal organization, following a politically charged five-year trial against dozens of defendants, including former lawmakers of what had become Greece's third largest party.
Delivering landmark verdicts, the court ruled that seven of the party's 18 former lawmakers, including party leader Nikos Michaloliakos, were guilty of leading a criminal organization, while the others were guilty of participating in a criminal organization.
Those convicted of leading a criminal organization face between five and 15 years in prison, while the others face sentences of up to 10 years.
As news of the guilty verdicts broke, cheers and celebrations erupted among the crowd of more than 15,000 people gathered in an anti-fascist rally outside the Athens courthouse. A small group among the crowd threw Molotovs and stones at police guarding the courthouse, with authorities responding with tear gas and use of a water cannon. It was not immediately clear why the group began throwing projectiles in the otherwise peaceful rally.
The marathon trial had been assessing four cases rolled into one: the 2013 fatal stabbing of Greek rap singer Pavlos Fyssas, physical attacks on Egyptian fishermen in 2012 and on left-wing activists in 2013, and whether Golden Dawn was operating as a criminal organization.
The 68 defendants included the 18 former lawmakers from the party that was founded in the 1980s as a neo-Nazi organization and rose to become Greece's third largest party in parliament during the country's decade-long financial crisis.
The three-member panel of judges also delivered a guilty verdict against Giorgos Roupakias for the murder of Fyssas, prompting applause inside the courtroom and among the crowd outside. Roupakias had been accused of being a party supporter who delivered the fatal stab wounds to Fyssas. Another 15 defendants – none of them former lawmakers – were convicted as accomplices in Fyssas' killing.
Outside the courthouse, Fyssas' mother Magda Fyssa, who had attended nearly every court session over the last five years, raised her arms and shouted: "Pavlos did it. My son!"
All five people accused of attempted murder in the violence against the migrant fishermen were also found guilty, while the four people accused of attempted murder in the attacks against left-wing activists were found guilty of the lesser charge of causing bodily harm.
Only 11 of the 68 defendants were present in the courtroom, with the rest represented by their lawyers. None of the former Golden Dawn lawmakers were in court.
"The ruling demonstrates that they were just a gang of knife-wielding thugs who took their orders from the top," said Thanassis Kambayiannis, one of the lawyers representing the fishermen.
After the verdicts were read out, defense lawyers began summations ahead of sentencing, in a process that could last several days.
"Today marks a huge victory for justice and respect for Greece and the entire world," Eva Cosse, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch, told AP. "It sends a strong message that hate crimes are not and should not be tolerated in a democratic society."
Security was tight at the courthouse, with around 2,000 police, drones and a police helicopter deployed. The avenue outside the Athens courthouse was closed to traffic and the building itself blocked off by a string of police buses.
The crowd at the anti-fascist rally waved banners with slogans including "Fyssas lives, crush the Nazis," and chanted "The people demand the Nazis in jail." More than 5,000 people held a similar rally in the northern city of Thessaloniki.
Representatives of parties across the political spectrum, from the governing conservative New Democracy party to Greece's Communist Party and the former governing left-wing SYRIZA party, were outside the courthouse.
At the crux of the case was whether the string of violent attacks could be linked to Golden Dawn's leadership and whether the party was operating as a criminal organization. The preliminary investigation indicated the party operated as a paramilitary group, with orders handed down from the party leadership to neighborhood organizations and onto assault groups which carried out attacks on migrants that often led to serious injury.
But during the course of the trial, the prosecutor recommended the acquittal of many of the party members for the criminal organization charge on the grounds of lack of evidence.
Golden Dawn had denied any direct link to the attacks and described the trial and charges brought against the party's leadership as an "unprecedented conspiracy" aimed at curbing its rise in popularity. [AP]