Athens, Greece – When the trial of Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn party kicked off on April 20, 2015, it was expected to span some 18 months. But three-and-a-half years later, a final verdict seems as distant as ever.
The start of the trial followed a 15-month investigation, and prosecutors charged Golden Dawn, currently the third-largest party in the Greek parliament, with operating a criminal organisation that directed and carried out a brutal spate of violence.
The prosecution charged 69 Golden Dawn members, including its core leadership and entire 2013 parliamentary group.
On Tuesday, 12 prosecution lawyers filed a petition requesting that the court expedite the process. The lawyers requested that judges be freed up to focus on the hearings, which they want to be held daily and that sessions take place in a central Athens court rather than at Korydallos Prison in neighbouring Piraeus.
Thanasis Kampagiannis, a prosecution lawyer, explained that there are currently eight to 10 sessions a month.
“We are asking for it to speed up because, in the phase we’re now in, lawyers for Golden Dawn are stalling the process by asking for lots of papers and documents from the parliament,” he told Al Jazeera.
Golden Dawn’s press office had not replied to Al Jazeera’s request for comment at the time of publication.
What is Golden Dawn accused of?
Golden Dawn was established as a political association in the 1980s, but it was registered as a party in 1993. Its rise to the Greek parliament came in 2013, after gaining 18 seats in elections by capitalising on widespread anger over the country’s financial crisis.
Led since its founding by Nikolaos Michaloliakos, Golden Dawn has long been accused of carrying out attacks targeting refugees, migrants and political opponents.
It faced few legal consequences before September 2013, when a Golden Dawn member stabbed to death 34-year-old Greek rapper Pavlos Fyssas in Keratsini, a neighbourhood in Piraeus.
Following Fyssas’s murder, security forces arrested dozens of Golden Dawn members, including its core leadership. While sweeping the suspects’ homes after the arrests, police found firearms, weapons and Nazi memorabilia.
The trial includes charges that the party’s military-like leadership ordered violent attacks, including incidents in which Egyptian fishermen and African and Asian immigrants were targeted.
Although Michaloliakos accepted what he called the “political responsibility” for Fyssas’s killing in a 2015 radio interview, Golden Dawn rejects the charges. The party dismisses the trial as “political persecution”.
All the detained Golden Dawn members – including Giorgos Roupakias, charged with murdering Fyssas – have been released. Greek law allows for a maximum of 18 months pre-trial detention.
Membership in a criminal organisation carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years. But for some defendants accused of murder and conspiracy to murder, the sentences could be steeper, if convicted. The party could also lose its parliamentary seats.
Why has it taken so long?
When it first kicked off, many predicted that the trial would take around 18 months. But three-and-a-half years later the end remains far off.
The number of files meant to be examined throughout the course of the proceedings number around 30,000, while both the prosecution and the defence have hundreds of witnesses. The breadth of evidence, coupled with procedural delays and occasional public sector strikes, has drawn out the case.
When Greek lawyers launched a three-month strike in 2016, for instance, the Athens Bar Association denied requests to grant an exemption to those working on the Golden Dawn trial.
As of now, the court has held more than 250 sessions and heard from nearly 250 prosecution witnesses. With an estimated 230 defence witnesses yet to take the stand, the Greek daily Ekathimerini predicts that the trial could stretch into 2020.
For his part, prosecution lawyer Thanasis Kampagiannis does not expect that the current pace of the trial will put its finale in 2020, but he does worry that Golden Dawn’s legal team is attempting to prolong the process.
“This is a tactic for them to stall the process because, in a few months, the defendants will have to come and give their closing statements. They want to avoid that as much as possible.”
What has the trial revealed so far?
The trial has brought to light details about harrowing allegations of organised violence, collaboration with police, weapons possession and money laundering, among others.
Several prosecution witnesses have painted a grim picture of the party as a strictly organised group in which nearly all decisions – including attacks – were given a seal of approval by the leadership.
In November 2017, a protected witness, a former Golden Dawn member whose name was not revealed, testified that he had participated in violent attacks on communist unionists and attended weapons training sessions with the party. He said that all attacks carried out by his chapter, in Nikaia, were approved by high-ranking party official Giannis Lagos.
It was just one example of many in which testimony suggested that attacks were planned and approved before being carried out.
In April 2018, a series of wiretapped phone calls entered into evidence further revealed collaboration between Golden Dawn and police officers, including recordings that suggested one Golden Dawn member was in close contact with a counterterrorism officer.
Other evidence against the party includes videos of weapons training, military-like exercises, attacks, private speeches and functions and the party’s early ideological texts, many of which explicitly describe Golden Dawn as a national socialist group.
Why does it matter?
Beyond the legal consequences, experts say, a guilty verdict would send a strong message against racist violence in a country where it has found fertile ground.
Watchdogs, critics and analysts say much is at stake in the trial. If found not guilty, they worry that the message would be clear: Golden Dawn can carry out organised political violence with impunity.
Although Seraphim Seferiades, a politics professor at the Athens-based Panteion University, expects the trial to eventually conclude with a guilty verdict, he explained that a potential not-guilty verdict “would be a terrible outcome”.
“With the far right on the rise in Europe, the message would be that [Golden Dawn] can get away with acting as a criminal organisation,” he told Al Jazeera.
“After all the undue delay, the party would be re-legitimised, and that would set a very bad precedent. What’s at stake is a clear message of holding to account organisations with this ideology – racism, xenophobia.”
According to a poll published in September, Golden Dawn enjoyed just over seven percent support among voters – slightly more than the percentage it received during the January 2015 elections.
After expelling a parliamentarian over controversial remarks in the summer, Golden Dawn now has 15 seats in the Hellenic Parliament; it also has two seats in the European Parliament.
The party denies involvement in recent attacks, but opponents accuse its members of continuing to carry out violence throughout the trial.
In November 2017, a group of Golden Dawn supporters attacked Evgenia Kouniaki, a lawyer who is part of a legal team representing Egyptian fishermen in the trial.
In recent years, other far-right groups have also claimed responsibility for a spate of attacks. In March, Crypteia, a secretive neo-Nazi group, took credit for an arson attack on the Afghan Community in Athens’s office.
Earlier that month, police arrested several suspects from Combat 18 Hellas, another neo-Nazi group, over their alleged involvement in a series of attacks targeting leftists and Jewish cemeteries.