Greek far-right leaders accused of organised violence

Greek far-right leaders accused of organised violence
Christos Pappas (2nd-R), lawmaker of the extreme far-right Golden Dawn party, is escorted by masked police officers to the prosecutor's office from the police headquarters in Athens on September 29, 2013. Greek police swooped on the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, arresting its leadership and hunting for dozens of members across the country in a crackdown sparked by the murder of a leftist musician.

ATHENS - She first got into politics in Greece last year - when she bought herself a bullet-proof vest and learned how to beat up immigrants with poles hung with the national flag.

Her training over, she was a full member of Golden Dawn, the far-right party whose rage against foreigners has propelled its stiff-arm saluting leader Nikolaos Mihaloliakos and 17 others into parliament in Athens in the wake of the Greek debt crisis.

A year on and the woman is Witness B, giving evidence used to arrest Mihaloliakos and five fellow Golden Dawn lawmakers. They have been charged with belonging to a criminal organisation involved in many offences including the stabbing last month of a left-wing rap artist whose death has infuriated the government.

"Abusing immigrants was fun," Witness B told prosecutors last month of her days riding with a party motorcycle gang, according to a partial transcript of testimony included in prosecutors' indictment submission and seen by Reuters.

Defence lawyers challenge the testimony and the charges.

The party denies wrongdoing. Accusing the government of tactics not seen since the military junta of 40 years ago, it says it is being persecuted for its politics after standing up for ordinary Greeks against a corrupt elite that has bankrupted the nation and flung open its borders to cheap migrant labour.

Statements filed in court by purportedly penitent members of Golden Dawn paint the most detailed picture yet of the inner workings of a group that spent three decades on the far fringes of politics before becoming the fifth biggest party last year.

That picture is one of violence and intimidation not only against migrants, the testimony suggests, but also within the party - against dissenters or some who sought to leave. As such, the witnesses may be key to proving that Golden Dawn is a criminal organisation, people familiar with the case said.

No date or venue has been set for a trial of the six lawmakers, three of whom have been released on bail. They face 10 years in jail if convicted of criminal association.

A party supporter accused of killing the rapper during a street brawl is being tried for manslaughter with intent in a separate case; he says he was acting in self-defence.

"All this is nonsense," said Pericles Stavrianakis, lawyer for Golden Dawn parliamentary spokesman Christos Pappas, who is among the six senior party officials charged. Stavrianakis said the witness testimony was "fake and made up".

Reuters has not verified the witnesses' identities. But prosecutors see their testimony as indicating that the party systematically planned or committed crimes over a period - a key test for convicting members of being part of a criminal organisation under a law targeting gang crime and terrorism.

Some witnesses also tell of members admiring Hitler, though the party denies it is neo-Nazi. Its swastika-style flag and its slogan "Blood, Honour, Golden Dawn" are reminiscent of Nazi symbols and ideas, but these are not illegal in Greece.

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