The women who brought down Greece's Golden Dawn

<span>Photograph: Pantelis Saitas/EPA</span>
Photograph: Pantelis Saitas/EPA

Behind the bench, before her mostly male audience, as the marathon trial of Golden Dawn entered its last act, supreme court justice Maria Lepenioti did what she has done every week: she kept the peace.

It has not been easy. Emotions have often run high. Even as the curtain is about to come down on proceedings with a ruling on if those convicted will be jailed before an appeal can be heard, the Greek judge, both laconic and low-key, has had to pull off an extraordinary balancing act presiding over a case that has put more Nazi leaders and sympathisers in the dock than at any time since Nuremberg.

In her court every word has counted. There has been no tolerance for the extreme rhetoric that fuelled the neo-fascist group’s spectacular rise. Nor for jibes from the other side.

“Day after day, session after session, she has managed to keep the harmony,” says Giota Tessi, a reporter with the leftist Syntaktwn paper who has observed the proceedings almost since they began in April 2015. “Her knowledge of the case file is incredible. She has been a model of restraint but she has also been very aware of the weight of the moment.”

Historians will look back at the women who played a seminal role in Golden Dawn’s downfall. Under Lepenioti’s gaze, the three-member tribunal has gone where many in Greece had formerly feared to tread. After its landmark ruling that the far-right, ultra-nationalist party was a criminal organisation bent on extinguishing enemies real or perceived, sentences have been delivered that will almost certainly ensure its leadership remain behind bars for years to come. The party’s founder, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, and the tattooed macho militants who comprised his inner circle, all received 13-year prison terms.

With the last chapter in the story of Europe’s most violent political force finally written, it will not be lost on the protagonists that punishment, in the end, was meted out by a woman. “It’s undeniable that in this case justice was female,” said Maria Stratigaki, professor of gender studies at Panteion University, noting the number of female prosecutors and investigators who also participated in drawing up the dossier against Golden Dawn. “For a party whose ideology is based on male supremacy, whose worldview is so militaristic, it’s humiliating and will hurt.”

Stratigaki is among the many who believe there are lessons to be learned.

The dark episode of Golden Dawn – its meteoric rise from being a fringe movement 40 years ago to Greece’s third-biggest party on the back of protest votes over EU-dictated austerity – has raised disquieting questions.

When historians look back they will see a nation whose political class was slow in dealing with the rightwing menace and a society whose silence was deafening. A police force whose complicity enabled the extremists to act with impunity – until their murder of a popular anti-fascist Greek hip-hop artist, Pavlos Fyssas, provoked a backlash that was impossible to ignore – has already been illuminated by the trial. Officers who sympathised with the group, covering up attacks on leftists, migrants and refugees and the LGBTQ community, were among the hearing’s 68 defendants.

Instead, it took the justice system, viewed as one of the country’s few meritocratic institutions, to confront the party’s violent tactics and thuggish behaviour.

“Justice stepped in where others should have stepped before,” Stratigaki told the Guardian. “And our justice system is full of female judges because it is they who do better at exams and rise to the top.”

Lepenioti, at 62, is the same age as Michaloliakos, Golden Dawn’s rambunctious leader whose extremist ideas and embrace of national socialism were cultivated during the 1967-74 Colonels’ regime. Upon the restoration of democracy, fresh out of law school as a star student, she would go on to become part of Greece’s first generation of female judges.

No trial since the collapse of military rule has been as politically significant.

But as professor Statigaki is quick to note, it might never have got to this had it not been for the courage of other women in the justice system who would assemble the voluminous case file against Golden Dawn.

Within days of Fyssas’ assassination, Ioanna Klappa and Maria Dimitropoulou were assigned by Efterpi Koutzamani, the first female prosecutor to be appointed to the supreme court, to investigate the murder.

The magistrates spent the next nine months, watched over by armed guards, trawling through computers confiscated from the party’s leaders after they were arrested and jailed in pre-trial detention. Despite threats and almost daily intimidation, they examined countless witnesses, wading through thousands of videos, pictures, speeches, documents and blogs detailing the militants’ obsession with the toxic ideology of Hitler and the Third Reich. Their 15,000-page dossier ultimately laid the case against Golden Dawn. Given the impossibility of banning a party elected by democratic process, it became vital in exposing the extremist group as a criminal organisation.

“The best defence of any liberal democracy is the rule of law and the courage and bravery of individuals like these women,” said Aristides Hatzis, a professor of law at Athens University. “As importantly women were also pivotal to the demise of Golden Dawn collectively,” he added referring to the party’s failure to be admitted into parliament at the last general elections in July 2019. “Many who had previously voted for them did not last time ensuring their defeat.”

On the bench Lepenioti has served justice. But in her audience there is one woman who has faithfully always been there too. For many she is the image of Pavlos, her slain son, a poignant symbol of the battle of right over wrong. No one so single-handedly has raised interest in the trial as much as Magda Fyssa, a seamstress before Pavlos, a working-class hero, was knifed to death in the suburb of Keratsini in September 2013.

Nothing, she knows, will bring him back but as she screamed – in an outburst of joy and emotion within minutes of the court pronouncing judgment on the neo-Nazis – “Pavlos you did it!”

For now, the poisonous past had been laid to rest. Truth and beauty had emerged triumphant with the passing of Golden Dawn.