Neo-Nazi leaders of Greece's Golden Dawn sentenced to 13 years

<span>Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

The neo-Nazi leaders of Golden Dawn have each been sentenced to 13 years in prison by a court in Athens, at the end of a historic hearing.

The neo-fascist group was officially laid to rest as its disgraced former MPs were shown little mercy by a three-member panel of judges. Last week the court ruled that Golden Dawn lawmakers had operated a criminal organisation under the guise of being a democratically elected party.

A public prosecutor proposed lengthy prison terms for 57 defendants convicted of murder, assault, weapons possession and either running or participating in the criminal outfit, and on Wednesday a total of more than 500 years behind bars was handed down by the tribunal.

The court, which almost unanimously dismissed pleas for leniency, went into recess following the announcement to deliberate on whether the sentences would be suspended pending appeal.

Defence lawyers had argued during the marathon legal proceedings for sentences to be reduced, citing their clients’ good behaviour, honourable family lives and even love of animals. Under Greece’s penal code, the maximum prison sentence for the crime of heading a criminal gang is 15 years.

Thanasis Kampagiannis, a lawyer who represented four Egyptian fishermen brutally attacked by Golden Dawn supporters, said it was “critical for the vindication of the victims” and how the trial would ultimately be assessed that the sentences should not be suspended.

The prospect of the convicted neo-Nazis walking free until a higher court heard the case again would trigger an explosive reaction, anti-fascist activists predicted.

Golden Dawn’s founder, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, 62, is facing 13 and a half years in prison, the price for not only masterminding the organisation’s criminal activities as its self-appointed führer but turning what was once a fringe Nazi movement into a political force whose modus operandi was the eradication of enemies by hit squads.

His extremist views were formed during Greece’s 1967-74 Colonels’ regime. He was handed an extra six-month jail term for illegal arms possession.

Ioannis Lagos, an MEP and one-time close confidante of Michaloliakos, received a prison term of 13 years and eight months, requiring Greek judicial authorities to request that his political immunity is lifted.

From its inception in the early 1980s through to 2012 when, riding a wave of economic anger and despair, it began its seven-year stint in parliament, the far right group targeted leftists, anti-nationalist “traitors”, communist trade unionists, members of the LGBTQ community, migrants and refugees.

The admission of a senior party operative, Giorgos Roupakias, that he had fatally stabbed Pavlos Fyssas, a popular anti-fascist hip-hop artist, triggered the party’s fall with the then conservative-led government, finally setting the wheels of Greek justice in motion.

Roupakias was the only gang member to be given a life sentence on Wednesday. He had claimed feelings of contrition for the murder of the 34-year-old Fyssas. The slain singer’s father, attending the hearing with Fyssas’s mother, Magda, expressed disappointment at the other sentences, telling reporters: “They are too light. I am not satisfied. I had hoped they would get 20 years.”

Pavlos Fyssas
Pavlos Fyssas, a popular anti-fascist musician, was murdered by a Golden Dawn member. Photograph: Alexandros Theodoridis/AFP via Getty Images

Greece’s KKE communist party said the punishments were inadequate, blamed the new penal code and urged authorities to ensure the “Nazi criminals” began serving time instantly.

Michaloliakos, a Holocaust denier and diehard Hitler apologist, has refused steadfastly to own up to any of the crimes, despite incriminating speeches, videos and Third Reich paraphernalia found in his home. Instead, he maintains the ultra-nationalist “patriotic” party has been a victim of political persecution, hounded for its ideology rather than its actions.

“We were condemned for our ideas,” he tweeted last week before his account was suspended. “When illegal immigrants are the majority in Greece, when [the government] hands over everything to Turkey, when millions of Greeks are unemployed on the street, they will remember Golden Dawn.”

Golden Dawn MPs found guilty of sowing terror on the streets of suburbs far and wide, coordinating black-clad militias in their constituencies, were handed sentences ranging from five to seven years.

The deputies included Michaloliakos’s wife, Eleni Zaroulia, who in one address before parliament infamously described immigrants as being “subhuman”.

Ilias Kasidiaris, who has broken away to form his own far-right party since Golden Dawn’s failure to be elected to the 300-seat house last year, was handed a 13-and-a-half-year prison term as a top-tier member of the inner circle around Michaloliakos.

The former commando, who gained notoriety by slapping a communist female MP on TV, was caught on camera openly bragging that parliamentary representation had allowed the group to “exploit certain privileges like having a licence to carry a weapon”.

Related: Why did Golden Dawn's neo-Nazi leaders get away with it for so long? | Daniel Trilling

The sentences seal the fate of a political force that has quickly dissolved amid defections and factional infighting since its ejection from parliament.

But the five-and-a-half-year trial has illuminated the extraordinary leniency shown towards the Nazi sympathisers by the Greek state.

In a country that suffered so badly at the hands of occupying Nazi troops, many accept it has taken far too long to acknowledge crimes that were all too apparent long before Greece’s political class took action.

A police report leaked last week said as many as 16 far-right groups were vying to fill the vacuum left by Golden Dawn.