Athens, Greece – Following guilty verdicts against the Golden Dawn group over a series of crimes including murder, Athens has seen a day of jubilation, tears and tear gas.
As a landmark trial spanning more than five years concluded, Golden Dawn was found guilty of four charges – significantly of being a criminal organisation.
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Once the third-largest party in Greece, the leadership of Golden Dawn, including its leader Nikos Michaloliakos and current MEP Ioannis Lagos, now face lengthy prison sentences.
Giorgos Roupakias, a self-professed follower of Golden Dawn, was also found guilty of the murder of anti-racism campaigner and rapper Pavlos Fyssas, known as “Killah P”, and Golden Dawn members were also found guilty of the attempted murder of a group of Egyptian fishermen in Athens in 2012.
Wednesday marks an historic day for the country, which saw the biggest trial of self-professed fascists since the Nuremberg trials.
About 10,000 people gathered outside the court to hear the verdict, hoping for judges to find the 68 people on trial guilty.
Police buses were parked bumper-to-bumper outside the court to prevent any of the protesters from getting near the building, but the atmosphere outside was largely peaceful.
A moment of quiet came over the crowds as the news emerged – first that Roupakias had been found guilty of murdering Fyssas and then that the infamous neo-Nazi group would be indicted as a criminal organisation.
People hugged, chanted and clapped at the news, and there was a sense of relief as well as joy in the air. Up until the last minute, many in Greece still believed that Golden Dawn could escape justice.
In emotional scenes, Pavlos Fyssas’s mother, Magda, who has waited for more than seven years to see justice served for her son, punched the air outside the court and said “you did it, my son,” while members of his family cried and hugged each other nearby.
Protesters young and old embraced and chanted the names of Golden Dawn’s victims – Pavlos Fyssas and Shehzad Luqman, who was 27 when he was stabbed to death by Golden Dawn affiliates in 2013.
The joy was cut short, however, by the use of tear gas and a water cannon against the largely peaceful group.
A small number of people had reportedly started throwing objects at the police, but after dancing and clapping, many who had gathered outside the court were left struggling to breathe amid copious waves of tear gas.
Gas canisters were, however, not enough to dampen the protesters’ spirits as they left the court and headed towards Syntagma Square, chanting anti-fascist songs.
“Pavlos Lives,” were the words on everyone’s lips, from old men to young children on their father’s shoulders.
However, some warned that the far right would live on, despite the verdict.
“There are still fascists and Nazi groups everywhere,” said two men in their early twenties, who did not want to be identified. “This is only the start.”
Reading the verdict, presiding judge Maria Lepenioti said Golden Dawn founder and leader Nikos Michaloliakos and other senior members were guilty of running a criminal organisation.
None of the party’s senior members was present in the court.
“It is really a very important day for Greek democracy,” said Daphne Halikiopoulou, a professor of comparative politics from Reading University. “It is a decision that proves that there is a democratic system, that the institutions are independent and that our judicial systems work and that this criminal organisation can actually be indicted for crime.”
Halikiopoulou said that it was still important to frame this as a “first step,” against the far right in Greece and beyond.
“I think that while the Golden Dawn verdict is a good thing, we now need to take a step back as a country and to understand why we voted this criminal organisation into our parliament. There are underlying reasons why these kinds of ideas became supported and why they were widespread. Unless we deal with that as well, then obviously there will be other Golden Dawns at the next crisis.”
Manos Moschopoulos from the Open Society Foundations said it was important to monitor far-right narratives in politics.
“The Golden Dawn grew at a time when people had lost faith in Greece’s democratic system and its ability to protect them during the severe austerity crisis. Their slogans were designed to put the blame on the most vulnerable. It wasn’t migrants who threatened the livelihoods of Greeks in 2012 when the Golden Dawn entered parliament. As was the case then, today racist politics pose a larger threat to the wellbeing of our community than any of the far right’s scapegoats.”
Eva Cosse, the Western Europe researcher from Human Rights Watch, said it was a significant day for all those who had suffered because of Golden Dawn’s actions.
“This historic verdict sends a clear message that hate-mongers will not be tolerated and have no place in a democratic society. It’s an important day for victims, their families and Greece as a whole.”