Greek police arrest far-right party leader amid crackdown

Sixteen members of Golden Dawn, including its leader, arrested for allegedly forming criminal organization

Nikos Mihaloliakos, leader of the extreme-right party Golden Dawn delivers a speech in Athens in 2013.
REUTERS/Yorgos Karahalis

Police arrested the leader and 15 other top officials of Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party Saturday on charges of forming a criminal organization, in an escalation of a government crackdown after the fatal stabbing of Pavlos Fissas, an anti-fascist rapper, allegedly committed by a man who is reportedly a member of Golden Dawn.

It is the first time since 1974 that a party head and sitting members of the Greek parliament have been arrested.

Police announced the arrests of the 16 Golden Dawn members, including party head Nikos Mihaloliakos, spokesman Ilias Kassidiaris and two other lawmakers. A local Golden Dawn leader in an Athens suburb was also detained. The rest were ordinary members.

Two police officials said an operation by the counterterrorism unit was still ongoing late Saturday morning, with a total of about 35 arrest warrants for Golden Dawn members issued. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to speak publicly, according to The Associated Press.

Despite the arrests, the party's lawmakers will retain their parliamentary seats unless they are convicted of a crime. Golden Dawn holds 18 of the Greek parliament's 300 seats; the party won nearly 7 percent of the vote in general elections last year. The party has denied any links to the killing, and Mihaloliakos has warned the party could pull its awmakers from parliament if the crackdown does not stop.

The arrests come 11 days after Fissas was allegedly killed by reported Golden Dawn member George Roupakias. Though the party has vehemently denied any role in the killing, it has appeared to dent its appeal among Greeks and the government has worked to crack down on the party.

Al Jazeera's John Psaropoulos reported from Athens that the prosecutor in the murder case has been analyzing Roupakias' phone records to determine whether the killing was ordered by leaders at the top of the organization.

Golden Dawn expressed outrage at the arrests in a text message to journalists. "We call upon everyone to support our moral and just struggle against the corrupt system! Everyone come to our offices!" it said. 

A later text message called for supporters to head to police headquarters "with calm and order." A small group of about 30 people initially gathered, standing on the sidewalk across the street from the building.

A formerly marginal organization with neo-Nazi roots, Golden Dawn entered the Greek parliament for the first time in May 2012, capitalizing on Greece's deep financial crisis, rising crime and anti-immigrant sentiment.

The party's members and supporters have frequently been suspected of carrying out violent attacks, mainly against immigrants. Despite its reputation for violence, the party had enjoyed growing popularity.

A government spokesman refused to comment on the details of the operation.

"Democracy can protect itself. Justice will do its job," Simos Kedikoglou told reporters.

In addition to Mihaloliakos and Kassidiris, Golden Dawn deputy, Ilias Panayiotaros, gave himself up at police headquarters, telling police they were looking for him at a wrong address. Another lawmaker, Yannis Lagos, has also been arrested.

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