The leader of Greece's third most popular political party was led away in handcuffs yesterday, as counterterror police launched a series of raids against the hierarchy of an extreme-right group whose popularity has been fuelled by the financial crisis.
Nikos Michaloliakos, general secretary of the Golden Dawn party, faces charges of leading a criminal organisation whose offences allegedly include physical assaults against immigrants, blackmail and money-laundering.
In what was seen as a tactical move to hamstring the party's command and rising popularity in a country plagued by an economic crisis, Mr Michaloliakos and his top deputies were the first to be arrested in the early hours of the morning.
Some 35 warrants were issued against party members, and 17 arrested on charges of forming a "criminal organisation".
"What you are doing is not right," Mr Michaloliakos protested, as he was led away from his Athens home, which also reportedly contained guns. "The truth will shine."
The Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras, was asked for a reaction to the Golden Dawn arrests and its implications for Greek politics. "Justice, stability, no elections," he said, as he hurried from his office yesterday.
The arrests were the first time since 1974 that a party head and MPs had been detained. But they will retain their seats unless convicted of a crime. Of the six lawmakers targeted, only one remained at large last night.
The arrests were described by government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou as an unprecedented and "dynamic response to a neo-Nazi organisation". "We have succeeded in stripping them of their political cover and dealt with them as what they really are, a criminal organisation," he said.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Golden Dawn supporters, most wearing black or blue T-shirts, assembled outside the Athens police headquarters chanting the party slogan "Blood, Honour, Golden Dawn" and carrying Greek flags. One supporter fired a flash bomb at the building over the riot police.
Among those arrested was the Golden Dawn party spokesman, Ilias Kasidiaris, who made the news last year for slapping a left-wing politician and throwing water over another during a live TV debate. He managed to evade an arrest warrant for the alleged assaults by hiding from police and went on to sue both women for defamation.
A once marginal organisation with neo-Nazi roots, Golden Dawn entered parliament for the first time in May last year, capitalising on Greece's deep financial crisis, rising crime and anti-immigrant sentiment, to win 18 seats. Members and supporters have frequently been suspected of carrying out violent attacks, mainly against immigrants.
But it was the fatal stabbing of 34-year-old rapper Pavlos Fyssas, 11 days ago, by a self-declared Golden Dawn backer, that prompted the authorities to target members. The resulting public outcry prompted the government to order an investigation into the party's activities, reviewing phone records of more than 300 people connected to Golden Dawn.
As a stunned Greek public watched the events unfold, the justice minister, Haralambos Athanassiou, assured the public that Golden Dawn officials "would receive a fair trial". But experts warned that the arrests would not rid the country of extremism, spawned by a sense of public pain and humiliation following austerity measures imposed by Greece's international creditors.
"It is a success for the government, but not the end of Golden Dawn," said Dimitris Sotiropoulos, an associate professor of politics at Athens university, "because, for many years now, there has unfortunately been a wide diffusion of nationalism, anti-parliamentarism and violence as a means of political protest instead of rational dialogue."
Last night, some legal experts warned that the action, and potential procedural oversights, could undermine the cases against those detained. "The police and courts moved from complete inertia to the other extreme," said George Katrougalos, a professor of constitutional law.
Golden Dawn MP Christos Pappas, who avoided arrest, in a message on the party's website accused the authorities of going into "unprecedented illegal prosecutions" against their leader and lawmakers.
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