ATHENS — The counterterrorism police conducted an unprecedented crackdown on Greece’s neo-facist Golden Dawn party early Saturday morning, arresting four members of Parliament, including the head of the organization, and ten party officials. A search was under way for the arrest of two more lawmakers and more than twenty party members.
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It is the first time that members of political parties and Parliament members have been arrested in Greece since the fall of a military junta in 1974.
Less than two weeks after a man who said he had ties to the party murdered an anti-fascist Greek musician, igniting an uproar throughout Greece, Nikos Mihaloliakos, Golden Dawn’s leader and a member of Parliament, was taken into custody Saturday morning on charges of forming a criminal organization. The other arrests followed. The immunity usually enjoyed by Greek members of Parliament is automatically lifted in the case of felonies. For lesser charges, a vote has to be held in Parliament. But the immunity of Greek members of Parliament can only be lifted by a vote by the Parliament.
Ilias Kasidiaris, another Parliament member who is the party’s chief spokesman, was among those arrested early Saturday, along with two other lawmakers, Ilias Panagiotaros and Yiannis Lagos. Also included in the sweep was Giorgios Patelis, head of the party’s local chapter in Nikaia, a gritty Athens suburb that is one of Golden Dawn’s biggest strongholds.
The arrests are part of a rapidly widening campaign by the government to clamp down on what it says is a rising tide of extremism in Greece, fueled by a devastating economic crisis. In addition, the government last week opened an investigation into whether sympathizers or members of the group — one of the most violent rightist organizations in Europe — have infiltrated Greek police forces and the armed forces.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who heads the right-leaning New Democracy party, has said he is determined to curb the influence of Golden Dawn, a group whose standing had climbed in opinion polls in the last year and which now has 18 of its members in Parliament. Since the murder a week and a half ago of Pavlos Fyssas, a 34-year-old rapper whose lyrics protested the rise of neo-fascism in the country, Golden Dawn’s standing in polls has slid. But it is still the third most popular party in Greece, behind New Democracy and Syriza, the leftist party headed by a political maverick, Alexis Tsipras.
The crackdown is not without risks.
“If they are prosecuted, it might have a boomerang effect among Golden Dawn’s followers and voters,” Nikos Demertzis, a professor of political sociology at the University of Athens, said in an interview earlier this week. “If you alienate them totally from the political system, alleging that everyone who has voted for Golden Dawn or who likes them should be stigmatized, it may marginalize politically thousands of people,” he said.
Earlier this week, Mr. Mihaloliakos suggested that all 18 Golden Dawn members might resign from Parliament en masse, a move that could force a series of elections in areas where the party now holds seats. A government spokesman said such a move would not force a new round of general elections, although the prospect of new elections for those seats could undermine political stability in Greece at a time when Mr. Samaras is negotiating with the country’s creditors for continued financial aid as part of two multibillion euro bailouts is has already received — even as speculation of the possible need for a third bailout hangs over the talks.
Golden Dawn is by no means a new force in Greece, but its influence has grown in tandem with Greece’s devastating economic hardship. Armed with promises to restore jobs and order, its members espouse nationalistic and xenophobic slogans, appealing to marginalized Greeks in rough areas populated by a rising tide of unemployed immigrants, mostly from Pakistan and North Africa.
Human rights groups say Golden Dawn, whose members perform Nazi salutes at rallies and meetings, has systematically terrorized immigrants, while the police looked the other way. The aggressive acts include the beating of immigrants with clubs and shields bearing swastikalike symbols, or with wooden poles draped in the Greek flag.
in a message sent by cellphone to an unspecified number of Greeks, including reporters, Golden Dawn called for its backers to “support our moral and just struggle against the corrupt system,” appealing to them to rally outside the party’s offices in northeastern Athens and outside the Athens police headquarters near the city center where the members of Parliament and officials were being detained.
Tensions have also risen recently between Golden Dawn and leftist groups. This month, thousands of Greeks protested in Athens after about 50 Golden Dawn members, armed with bats and crowbars, attacked members of the Communist Party, leaving nine people hospitalized with serious injuries.
The police said arrests would continue throughout the day.