Greek far-right leaders accused of organised violence

Reuters

* Case triggered after left-wing rapper knifed to death instreet

* Testimony said to reveal inner workings of far-rightGolden Dawn

* Party vote soared with debt crisis, sees politicalwitch-hunt

By Renee Maltezou and Deepa Babington

ATHENS, Oct 13 (Reuters) - She first got into politics inGreece last year - when she bought herself a bullet-proof vestand learned how to beat up immigrants with poles hung with thenational flag.

Her training over, she was a full member of Golden Dawn, thefar-right party whose rage against foreigners has propelled itsstiff-arm saluting leader Nikolaos Mihaloliakos and 17 othersinto parliament in Athens in the wake of the Greek debt crisis.

A year on and the woman is Witness B, giving evidence usedto arrest Mihaloliakos and five fellow Golden Dawn lawmakers.They have been charged with belonging to a criminal organisationinvolved in many offences including the stabbing last month of aleft-wing rap artist whose death has infuriated the government.

"Abusing immigrants was fun," Witness B told prosecutorslast month of her days riding with a party motorcycle gang,according to a partial transcript of testimony included inprosecutors' indictment submission and seen by Reuters.

Defence lawyers challenge the testimony and the charges.

The party denies wrongdoing. Accusing the government oftactics not seen since the military junta of 40 years ago, itsays it is being persecuted for its politics after standing upfor ordinary Greeks against a corrupt elite that has bankruptedthe nation and flung open its borders to cheap migrant labour.

Statements filed in court by purportedly penitent members ofGolden Dawn paint the most detailed picture yet of the innerworkings of a group that spent three decades on the far fringesof politics before becoming the fifth biggest party last year.

That picture is one of violence and intimidation not onlyagainst migrants, the testimony suggests, but also within theparty - against dissenters or some who sought to leave. As such,the witnesses may be key to proving that Golden Dawn is acriminal organisation, people familiar with the case said.

No date or venue has been set for a trial of the sixlawmakers, three of whom have been released on bail. They face10 years in jail if convicted of criminal association.

A party supporter accused of killing the rapper during astreet brawl is being tried for manslaughter with intent in aseparate case; he says he was acting in self-defence.

"All this is nonsense," said Pericles Stavrianakis, lawyerfor Golden Dawn parliamentary spokesman Christos Pappas, who isamong the six senior party officials charged. Stavrianakis saidthe witness testimony was "fake and made up".

Reuters has not verified the witnesses' identities. Butprosecutors see their testimony as indicating that the partysystematically planned or committed crimes over a period - a keytest for convicting members of being part of a criminalorganisation under a law targeting gang crime and terrorism.

Some witnesses also tell of members admiring Hitler, thoughthe party denies it is neo-Nazi. Its swastika-style flag and itsslogan "Blood, Honour, Golden Dawn" are reminiscent of Nazisymbols and ideas, but these are not illegal in Greece.

POLITICAL CHALLENGE

Voters seem to be turning away from Golden Dawn, though itremains a significant force. Opinion polls suggest its supporthas shrunk by a third in the past year, but still give it closeto the 7 percent it won in the June 2012 parliamentary ballot.

Like other protest movements across Europe, Golden Dawn - aswell as the radical left party that came second in the Greekelection - has seen support surge since the euro zone debtcrisis destroyed jobs and incomes in much of the continent.

The speed with which prosecutors brought charges after thekilling, and government moves that could hurt Golden Dawn'sfinances, have prompted some Greeks to suspect political motivesin the case against an anti-establishment challenger. It hasused its 18 votes in the 300-seat legislature to call for Greeceto cancel massive foreign debts, attack the European Union andexpel illegal immigrants - all policies with widespread appeal.

Centre-right Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who rules incoalition with the main centre-left party, has spoken outfiercely against Golden Dawn since the stabbing. And a newgovernment bill would cut off public funds to parties if leadersare charged with felonies. But independent legal experts seelittle to suggest prosecutors have exceeded their authority.

"These were really unprecedented events, tackled in anunprecedented way, which many people found bizarre," said YannisDrossos, professor of constitutional law at Athens Law School.

"But bizarre is one thing and illegal is quite another. Itwas done quickly and decisively, but not in an illegal way."

STREET KILLING

Mihaloliakos, a 55-year-old former commando, founded themovement in the 1980s. The legal moves against him and hiscolleagues began after a street brawl in a working-classneighbourhood of Athens on Tuesday, Sept. 17 that left rapartist Pavlos Fissas dead.

Witness testimony indicates Fissas, 34, whose songs oftentook aim at racism, left a cafe with a few friends afterwatching soccer on television. They were chased by about 15 men.Fissas was caught, beaten and stabbed twice.

Yiorgos Roupakias, a truck driver held in custody on acharge of manslaughter with intent, has pleaded that he acted inself-defence, his lawyer, Christina Tsabazi, said.

Court and police documents seen by Reuters show Roupakiastold police in an initial statement that he was a Golden Dawnmember but later said he had only a "loose" connection to theparty. Phone records indicate he called a local party leaderseven times that evening, including once before the incident.

There is no suggestion Mihaloliakos or other lawmakers werepresent that night in the capital's Keratsini district.

But the outcry that followed the killing led to an orderfrom Greece's top court to investigate whether party memberswere involved in planning the violence and more than 30 othercrimes. In that investigation, parallel to the direct probe intoFissas's death, Mihaloliakos and two others remain in custody.

Pavlos Sarakis, lawyer for parliamentarians Ilias Kasidiarisand Ilias Panagiotaros, said neither had any link to thestabbing and denied they were part of a criminal organisation:

"All these accounts are monstrosities, a figment ofimagination, from witnesses who are serving a specific purpose,which is to criminalise Golden Dawn's members of parliament anddefame them in the public eye," Sarakis told Reuters.

Mihaloliakos denied the charges against him in a statementto prosecutors that was included in court documents seen byReuters. His lawyer declined to comment on the testimonies.

He said Golden Dawn was not a neo-Nazi movement. Greeksstill recall Nazi occupation in World War Two and Germany is atarget of popular anger again over EU demands for austerity.

VIOLENCE "COMMON"

More than 400,000 people voted for Golden Dawn last year -over 20 times as many as in 2009. The criminal case being puttogether by investigating magistrates in Athens, however,focuses on the core of organisers and youth members who appearto number a few thousand nationwide and have been a small butvocal presence on the streets over the past decade or so.

Often clad in black and marching with flags, Golden Dawnactivists broadened their appeal with eye-catching initiatives,from wrecking the stalls of immigrant street vendors to handingout free food - for Greek citizens only. Responding to concernthat police were complacent, or even colluded with Golden Dawn,the government has now ordered another inquiry into the force.

Former party members who have come forward to testify toprosecutors in the criminal case against the lawmakers say theyregret joining in violent initiation rites, indoctrination andmilitary-style training with knives and sticks. At least oneadmitted to being party to violence against fellow members andothers, according to transcripts of the testimonies.

It was unclear what, if anything, witnesses stand to gainfrom giving evidence. All have been given police protection.

One, Witness E, told prosecutors: "Some people exploited theneed to belong, which many of us felt."

In another court document, Witness A said party membersthreatened him and his family when he tried to quit: "It is easyto join," he said. "But nearly impossible to leave."

Witness B described a strict hierarchy. New recruits werenot permitted to address senior members, on pain of beating. Sheherself was once made to do 30 push-ups and kicked in the ribsafter protesting about jokes she said she found racist.

Witness C, who said he joined as a teenager six years ago,said he was punched and hit with sticks during his initiationinto an upper echelon. He said he was trained to use heavywooden batons, doubling up as flagpoles, as a weapon.

To be an elite street-fighter earned the title "Cerberus" -the "hell-hound" of Greek myth that guarded the Underworld.

Recalling "the faces of the people we tortured", Witness Ctold prosecutors: "I still wake up at night and feel guilty."

Witness E spoke of recruits being urged to read Hitler's"Mein Kampf", make Nazi-style salutes and support the overthrowof Greek democracy: "You have to prove blind devotion to themovement, to the leader, to the ideas of national socialism."

Sarakis, the defence lawyer, said his clients deny that theparty held any military-style training or carried out beatings:

"A criminal organisation operates in the dark, has secretmembers and engages in illegal activities," he said. "This doesnot correspond to a political party that has taken part inelections and whose activities are in the open."

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