ATHENS, Greece – Before stepping out of his house, Asif Ali gives his route careful consideration. The 28-year-old builder from Pakistan blames far-right street gangs for three attacks he suffered near his home in a poor area of Athens where a recent murder triggered Greece's crackdown on the Nazi-inspired Golden Dawn party.
Ali says he was beaten unconscious by a group of men dressed in black, attacked months later by a gang on motorcycles and assaulted again last December when three men boarded the bus he was taking to a construction site and broke his nose.
"I don't want to feel afraid but I do," he said. "I used to go for coffee and stay out late. Now I think it over 10 times before I go somewhere."
Greek authorities arrested Golden Dawn's top leaders this weekend after the slaying of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas — allegedly by a Golden Dawn volunteer in front of a crowd. Doctors, activists and victims greeted the news with relief but argued authorities should have acted much earlier, saying the killing was the culmination of a months-long increase in the brutality and brazenness of attacks by extreme right street gangs.
Not far from Ali's home in Athens' Nikea district, Dr. Panagiotis Papanikolaou mans a busy public hospital ward that has treated victims of far-right violence, dating back to a 1998 attack on a left-wing student that left him with severe brain injuries. For months, he has warned about a spike in the level of violence used in racist attacks, as well as about the targets expanding more recently from immigrants to also include Greeks. He has not compiled numbers of his observations, but he has been an eyewitness to the evolution of the crimes.
"We've seen cases of cranial and facial injuries, knife wounds and laceration injuries made by screwdrivers," said Papanikolaou, a senior consultant neurosurgeon at Nikea General Hospital. "I think it's just luck that we haven't had any deaths. Blows powerful enough to crack someone's skull show an intention to kill.
"These gangs have evolved after 'practicing' on defenseless people — immigrants — for two or three years. And now they attack more openly and also target activists and labor campaigners."
Mostly in Athens, about 300 serious assaults by far-right gangs have been recorded in Greece in the past two years — equivalent to three per week, according to a group created to monitor hate crimes. The Racist Violence Recording Network says nearly all involve multiple attackers, with about half of the cases resulting in serious injuries such as stab wounds or broken bones.
The network, which includes Amnesty International and the U.N. refugee agency, says the number of attacks has remained roughly stable since it first started operating in 2011, but that the gangs are getting more violent and have moved from back alleys to busy neighborhood streets.
"The level of violence definitely increased. There are more incidents recently that could be seen as having murderous intent," said coordinator Eleni Takou. "There has been a definite pattern: Gangs patrol the streets, sometimes with dogs. They usually wear black or military clothing and carry some kind of weaponry — clubs, baseball bats, knives. In other words, the attacks are not spontaneous."
More recent targets, she said, include Greek gays and left-wing activists.
Golden Dawn, which denies any involvement in the attacks, saw a surge in support amid public anger at the country's economic crisis and the highest levels of illegal immigration in Europe.
The group transformed from a once marginal group with a few thousand supporters to a party represented in parliament with popularity ratings reaching as high as 12 percent in June. Yet it took the Sept. 18 murder of Fyssas to trigger a high-level investigation into the group's activities that culminated in a rapid series of arrests over the weekend of 20 Golden Dawn members including its leader and five other lawmakers.
Government officials said Fyssas' murder served as a "catalyst" to crack down on Golden Dawn, but that the heart of the investigation was a growing body of evidence against the group. Some Greeks are skeptical, saying that only the death of a native-born Greek caused the government to pay attention.
"It took a murder — and indeed the murder of a Greek man — for an entire society and for the state to show sensitivity," conservative lawmaker Aris Spiliotopoulos told private Skai television on Monday.
"What seems to be an obvious course of action should have happened years ago. I cannot understand why Golden Dawn was on multiple occasions allowed to participate in elections, when the party's charter was well known and it should have been classified as a neo-Nazi group from the start."
Golden Dawn leader Nikos Mihaloliakos and other prominent members of party were led away in handcuffs late Saturday by masked and machine gun-wielding policemen to a public prosecutor's office. In New York on Monday, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras vowed to eradicate the extreme-right party, whose prominent members have denied the Holocaust and expressed admiration for Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
"There is no room for the neo-Nazis in any part of the democratic world, and there is no tolerance for the neo-Nazis — or for any kind of extremism — undermining democratic institutions," Samaras said.
Takou, of the violence recording network, said the gangs have begun to act as vigilante patrol squads, demanding to see residence papers from immigrants, who then are assaulted.
"They move around with the intent to spot someone dark-skinned and beat them up. Basically people in those gangs became convinced that nothing would happen to them if they beat up these people," she said. "They developed a sense of impunity."
The investigation that eventually led to Mihaloliakos' arrest focused on Golden Dawn activities in Nikea and alleged complicity by several local police officers. The police precinct was raided by police investigators last week, along with the offices of the far-right party. Supreme court prosecutors assigned to the case ordered wiretaps of Golden Dawn officials and were granted investigative powers normally reserved for terrorist groups or major crime organizations.
Ali said he is relieved by the crackdown, and hopes it will lead to lasting change.
"Golden Dawn propaganda had affected some people. Not the majority, but there were some who didn't mind seeing us being beaten up. But I think something is changing. People will now intervene more often to stop them. They realize that they are fascists," he said.
"I do think this is a (case of) 'now or never.' Most immigrants will leave this country eventually. But these people will stay."