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The trial of 69 members of a Greek far-right party, Golden Dawn, has started without the party leader or other main defendants being present.

The party's founder Nikos Michaloliakos and most of its indicted MPs were absent on Monday from the specially-built court room inside a high-security prison near Athens, where they face charges of running a criminal organisation.

The prosecution says Michaloliakos was the head of a covert army that intimidated and killed immigrants and opponents.

Their lawyers gave no explanation for their clients' absence during the proceeding, which has been adjourned until May 7, according to the AFP news agency.

Michaloliakos and his right-hand man Christos Pappas had been free pending the start of the trial after spending 18 months in preventive custody. Only around 40 defendants were present.

It was a public outcry over the murder of a leftwing rapper 19 months ago, that prompted judicial authorities to go after Golden Dawn.

Michaloliakos and his co-defendants are charged with a range of crimes, including murder and participation in a criminal organisation.

"Prosecutors describe Golden Dawn as a criminal organisation lurking under the guise of a political party. They point to evidence of military training, attack battalions and a strict hierarchy," John Psaropoulos, reporting from the court, said.

Security was tight both inside and around Korydallos prison, where hundreds of anti-Golden Dawn protesters had gathered. 

The trial, which is expected to last for months, will likely decide the future of parliament's third-largest party, an openly xenophobic and anti-Semitic grouping that used to be on the fringes of national politics but whose popularity soared as the country sank into economic hardship.

Prosecutors will try to prove that the anti-immigrant Golden Dawn operated as a criminal organisation with a military-style leadership that allegedly encouraged the beating, and possibly the killing of migrants and political opponents.

Under the command of Michaloliakos, a 57-year-old former army cadet, the party has already been linked by investigating magistrates to at least two murders.

Golden Dawn rejects the accusations as politically motivated.

The group was founded in the mid-1980s by Michaloliakos, handpicked by Greece's former military ruler George Papadopoulos to lead a far-right youth group after the country's military government fell.

Source: Al Jazeera And AFP