ATHENS, Greece (AP) — A Greek court ruled on Wednesday that the far-right Golden Dawn party was operating as a criminal organization, delivering landmark guilty verdicts following a politically charged five-year trial against dozens of defendants.
The court ruled that seven of the 18 former lawmakers, including Nikos Michaloliakos, the head of the party which had become Greece's third largest during the country's financial crisis, were guilty of leading a criminal organization. The others were found guilty of participating in a criminal organization.
As news of the guilty verdicts broke, cheers and celebrations erupted among the crowd of at least 20,000 people gathered in an anti-fascist rally outside the Athens courthouse. A small group threw Molotovs and stones, with police responding with tear gas and water cannon.
The marathon trial had been assessing four cases rolled into one: the 2013 fatal stabbing of Greek rap singer Pavlos Fyssas, physical attacks on Egyptian fishermen in 2012 and on left-wing activists in 2013, and whether Golden Dawn was operating as a criminal organization.
The 68 defendants included the 18 former lawmakers from the party that was founded in the 1980s as a neo-Nazi organization and rose in prominence during the country's decade-long financial crisis.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the verdict "ends a traumatic cycle" in the country's public life.
"Its political dimension has, fortunately, been judged by the victory of democracy, which expelled the Nazi formation from Parliament (in elections)," he said. "Now, the independent judiciary is giving its own answer."
The three-member panel of judges also found Giorgos Roupakias guilty of the murder of Fyssas, prompting applause inside the courtroom and among the crowd outside. Roupakias had been accused of being a party supporter who delivered the fatal stab wounds to Fyssas. Another 15 defendants — none of them former lawmakers — were convicted as accomplices.
Leaving the courthouse, Fyssas' mother Magda Fyssa, who had attended nearly every court session over the last five years, raised her arms and shouted: "Pavlos did it. My son!"
All five people accused of attempted murder against the fishermen were also found guilty, while the four accused of attempted murder in the attacks against left-wing activists were found guilty of the lesser charge of causing bodily harm.
Only 11 of the 68 defendants were present, with the rest represented by their lawyers. None of the former Golden Dawn lawmakers were in court.
"The ruling demonstrates that they were just a gang of knife-wielding thugs who took their orders from the top," said Thanassis Kambayiannis, one of the lawyers representing the fishermen.
After the verdicts, defense lawyers began summations ahead of sentencing, a process that could last several days. Those convicted of leading a criminal organization face up to 15 years in prison, while the others face up to 10 years. Roupakias faces a life sentence.
"Today marks a huge victory for justice and respect for Greece and the entire world," Eva Cosse, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Assoicated Press. "It sends a strong message that hate crimes are not and should not be tolerated in a democratic society."
Security was tight at the courthouse, with around 2,000 police, drones and a police helicopter deployed.
The crowd at the anti-fascist rally waved banners with slogans including "Fyssas lives, crush the Nazis," and chanted "The people demand the Nazis in jail." More than 5,000 people held a similar rally in the northern city of Thessaloniki.
Outside the courthouse, protester George Kounanis, who works as an employment equality campaigner for LGBT workers, said he was relieved by the verdict.
"We have lived under the threat they posed for years. They have beaten, threatened and verbally abused same sex couples. They hate everything that is not Greek and macho," he said. "But we never cowed and never stopped speaking out against them. So it does feel like a vindication. A lot of people supported them, so we cannot be complacent."
Politicians from across the political spectrum, from the governing conservative New Democracy party to Greece's Communist Party and the former governing left-wing Syriza party, also attended.
At the crux of the case was whether the string of violent attacks could be linked to Golden Dawn's leadership. During the trial, the prosecutor recommended the acquittal of many of the party members for lack of evidence.
Golden Dawn denies any direct link to the attacks and described the trial and charges against the party's leadership as an "unprecedented conspiracy" aimed at curbing its rise in popularity.
By DEREK GATOPOULOS and ELENA BECATOROS Associated Press
Fanis Karabatsakis in Athens and Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki contributed to this report.
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