World

Greek far-right leader, lawmakers on trial, accused of running party as criminal organization

  • FILE - This Sept. 28, 2013, file photo shows leader of the extreme far-right Golden Dawn party Nikos Michaloliakos, center,being escorted by anti-terror police as he exits Greek Police headquarters, in Athens. Leaders of Greece's third largest political party, the extreme right Golden Dawn, go on trial Monday, April 20, 2015, on charges of operating as a criminal organization that allegedly carried out a campaign of violence against immigrants and left-wing opponents. Party leader Michaloliakos and senior officials are among 69 defendants in the case closely watched by a country reeling from financial hardship and political uncertainty. (AP Photo/Fosphotos/Angeliki Panagiotou, File)

    FILE - This Sept. 28, 2013, file photo shows leader of the extreme far-right Golden Dawn party Nikos Michaloliakos, center,being escorted by anti-terror police as he exits Greek Police headquarters, in Athens. Leaders of Greece's third largest political party, the extreme right Golden Dawn, go on trial Monday, April 20, 2015, on charges of operating as a criminal organization that allegedly carried out a campaign of violence against immigrants and left-wing opponents. Party leader Michaloliakos and senior officials are among 69 defendants in the case closely watched by a country reeling from financial hardship and political uncertainty. (AP Photo/Fosphotos/Angeliki Panagiotou, File)  (The Associated Press)

  • Police offices sit in front of suspects at the start of a trial of dozens of members and volunteers of the far-right Golden Dawn party, at Korydallos, near Athens, Monday April 20, 2015. Leaders of Greece's third-largest political party, the extreme right Golden Dawn, went on trial Monday on charges of operating as a criminal organization that allegedly carried out a campaign of violence against immigrants and left-wing opponents. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

    Police offices sit in front of suspects at the start of a trial of dozens of members and volunteers of the far-right Golden Dawn party, at Korydallos, near Athens, Monday April 20, 2015. Leaders of Greece's third-largest political party, the extreme right Golden Dawn, went on trial Monday on charges of operating as a criminal organization that allegedly carried out a campaign of violence against immigrants and left-wing opponents. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)  (The Associated Press)

  • Police officers lead suspect Giorgos Roupakias at the start of a trial of dozens of members and volunteers of the far-right Golden Dawn party, at Korydallos, near Athens, Monday April 20, 2015. Leaders of Greece's third-largest political party, the extreme right Golden Dawn, went on trial Monday on charges of operating as a criminal organization that allegedly carried out a campaign of violence against immigrants and left-wing opponents. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

    Police officers lead suspect Giorgos Roupakias at the start of a trial of dozens of members and volunteers of the far-right Golden Dawn party, at Korydallos, near Athens, Monday April 20, 2015. Leaders of Greece's third-largest political party, the extreme right Golden Dawn, went on trial Monday on charges of operating as a criminal organization that allegedly carried out a campaign of violence against immigrants and left-wing opponents. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)  (The Associated Press)

Leaders of Greece's third largest political party, the extreme right Golden Dawn, go on trial Monday on charges of operating as a criminal organization that allegedly carried out a campaign of violence against immigrants and left-wing opponents.

Party leader Nikos Michaloliakos and senior officials are among 69 defendants in the case closely watched by a country reeling from financial hardship and political uncertainty.

Founded by Michaloliakos as a tiny neo-Nazi organization in the mid-1980s, Golden Dawn transformed from being a marginal far-right group to a popular political party during the financial crisis that started in 2009.

It won 6.28 percent of the vote in general election three months ago, despite having state campaign funding axed.

The trial will be held inside a maximum security prison near Athens, where nearby schools and municipal services will be closed Monday over fears that several anti-Golden Dawn demonstrations planned in the area could turn violent.

Michaloliakos, a 57-year-old anti-immigrant firebrand, and 12 other members of parliament each face up to 10 years in prison if found guilty. Politicians and legal experts are divided over whether convictions could lead to the party being outlawed, with most opposing a ban.

Although Greek authorities don't keep official records on racist violence, human rights groups say a surge of attacks has occurred since 2010, typically against dark-skinned immigrants in Athens and frequently resulting in serious injury. Victims have reported that attackers — typically in groups and using brass knuckles and baseball bats — have often identified themselves as Golden Dawn supporters.

The party denies any involvement in attacks, however, claiming political opponents conspired against them after Golden Dawn exceeded 10 percent in opinion polls in 2013.

"They decided to put us handcuffs ... but in the face of all the mudslinging, Golden Dawn is the third strongest party in the country whether some people like it or not," Michaloliakos said after his release from prison last month, having served the maximum 18 months permitted under Greek law in pre-trial detention.

The crackdown was launched against Golden Dawn in 2013 after Greek rap singer Pavlos Fyssas was stabbed to death, allegedly by a party volunteer who was arrested after the street attack.

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Council of Europe report on racist violence in Greece http://goo.gl/yLo3zy