Protesters are seen among tear gas during clashes outside a court, where the trial of leaders and members of the Golden Dawn far-right party takes place in Athens, Greece, Oct. 7, 2020.

Activists see Greek ruling against Golden Dawn as model for fighting extremism

Earlier this month, an Athens court convicted the far-right group’s leadership of running a criminal organization and found other members and affiliates guilty of additional crimes.

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When Golden Dawn members attacked or harassed migrants and asylum-seekers in the Athens area — a common occurrence during the party’s ascent and eventual entry into Greek mainstream politics — Naim Elghandour would get a call.

“It didn’t matter if [the victims] were Pakistani or Bangladeshi — they’d come to me,” said Elghandour, who emigrated from Egypt to Greece in the 1970s, and is now president of the Muslim Association of Greece.

Related: Migrants displaced by Lesbos fire say conditions at new camp are inhumane

Elghandour recalled one particularly harrowing phone call about an attack on the evening of Oct. 30, 2010: Golden Dawn members showed up outside a prayer room in the Athens area where approximately 40 people from Bangladesh had gathered to pray. Supporters of the extremist group padlocked the door, locking everyone inside, and threw objects they’d set on fire through the windows. No one was seriously injured in the attack, but Elghandour said he’ll never forget the way people were shaking when he showed up on the scene.

Elghandour witnessed countless other attacks waged by Golden Dawn members and their supporters. He testified in the marathon, half-decade-long trial, which ended with a landmark and widely celebrated ruling earlier this month. An Athens court convicted Golden Dawn leadership earlier this month of running a criminal organization and found other members and affiliates guilty of a number of other crimes, including attempting to murder a group of Egyptian fishermen in 2012.

Many hope that the verdict in this landmark trial marks the end of a particularly dark period in the country’s recent history — and that it will serve as a model for other countries in the fight against extremism.

“I was overwhelmed with emotions … crying like a baby.”

Naim Elghandour, Muslim Association of Greece, president

“I was overwhelmed with emotions … crying like a baby,” said Elghandour, who was at the courthouse on the day of the ruling. The court handed down sentences the following week.

The rise and fall of Golden Dawn 

Golden Dawn began as a far-right newspaper in the 1980s, and at one point, in 2015, grew to be the third-biggest party in the Greek parliament. It was founded by Nikos Michaloliakos, a Holocaust denier.

In the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, the organization exploited the anger Greeks were feeling over the economy and migration. In 2010, Michaloliakos ran for Athens City Council under the slogan, “Greeks only for Greeks,” and won.

By 2012, at the peak of the economic crisis in Greece — and amid increased anger over harsh austerity measures — Golden Dawn got seats in the Hellenic Parliament. 

“We will go to extremes for Greece,” Michaloliakos said during a victory speech he delivered from a balcony, as people in the crowd below waved Greek and Golden Dawn flags and gave him the Nazi salute.

With Golden Dawn’s entrance into mainstream politics, it felt as if a wave of hatred had washed over the country, Elghandour said.

Migrants, asylum-seekers, and Black and other diverse people in Greece were indiscriminately targeted in what Human Rights Watch described as an “epidemic of racist violence.” People were chased through the streets, beaten, stabbed and terrorized.

“There was total impunity and those committing criminal acts didn’t fear being arrested, didn’t fear being prosecuted, tried and convicted.”

Eva Cossé, Human Rights Watch, Greece researcher

“There was total impunity and those committing criminal acts didn’t fear being arrested, didn’t fear being prosecuted, tried and convicted,” said Eva Cossé, the Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Cossé, who’s based in Athens, contributed to the first-ever report documenting racist violence in Greece.

Related: Under Greek law change, thousands of refugees could soon become homeless

Many victims were too afraid to go to the police. Golden Dawn sympathizers who worked at police departments would sometimes communicate directly with the group when people came to report attacks.

“We had the Golden Dawn against us on one side and then the police against us on the other side,” Elghandour said.

For years, Golden Dawn wreaked havoc, mostly undisturbed. But there was one particular attack in 2013 that seemed to shake the Greek public into realizing something in the country had gone terribly wrong. It was the murder of anti-fascist activist and rapper Pavlos Fyssas. He was Greek.

“That’s when the society started to feel the danger,” Elghandour said.

Riots broke out throughout the country.

Fyssas’ murder, the public backlash and the investigations that followed were arguably the most significant catalysts behind Golden Dawn’s eventual demise. By last year’s elections, the party didn’t get a single seat in the national parliament.

What’s next?

This month’s ruling against Golden Dawn, experts and watchers of far-right movements say, is significant not only for Greece but for other parts of Europe and the world.

“Of course, it doesn’t mean there won’t be a far-right, that there won’t be hateful rhetoric, racism, anti-Semitism in Greece,” said Dimitris Psarras, a Greek journalist who has been following the Golden Dawn since its inception in the ’80s and who was also a witness in the trial.

“No. All these things existed even before the Golden Dawn.”

But he says the historic court decision will prevent the kind of organized violence and criminal activity that set Golden Dawn apart from other extreme organizations.

Related: This beloved school gave migrants on Lesbos an escape. A fire turned it to rubble.

In recent years, Greece has also introduced safeguards into its systems to better tackle racially motivated attacks, said Cossé with Human Rights Watch.

For example in 2014, the Greek Parliament amended an existing law to make it possible to prosecute people for racially motivated crimes. And there are now specialized police units to tackle racist violence. These safeguards are particularly important now that the country is living through some of the same circumstances that Golden Dawn exploited more than a decade ago, Cossé said.

“Back in 2010, it was a period of economic crisis where migration was very high on the agenda, and where the government … was talking very negatively about migrants and asylum-seekers. And this is something that is happening today as well.”

Eva Cossé, Human Rights Watch, Greece researcher

“Back in 2010, it was a period of economic crisis where migration was very high on the agenda, and where the government … was talking very negatively about migrants and asylum-seekers,” Cossé said. “And this is something that is happening today as well.”

One of the reasons why the recent case in Greece is so important is that the rise of right-wing extremists has occurred in many places well beyond this country’s borders. Golden Dawn exported its ideology and tactics, and inspired a whole new generation of fascist extremists in Europe and even the US.

At the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, a gathering of neo-Nazis and other extremists, Matthew Heimbach, a white supremacist and one of the event’s organizers, was asked by VICE documentaries about his tactics.

“[We’re] primarily following the European example of Golden Dawn … and other organizations that really are the vanguard of nationalist organizing in the world,” Heimbach said.

The event ended with a counterprotester, Heather Heyer, being killed after one of the white supremacists deliberately drove his car into a crowd.

Activists expect this month’s court decision in Greece to be used as a model for reining in some of the very people and organizations that Golden Dawn inspired.

“Since day one, since the day of the decision, we had messages from Sweden instantly [saying] this is a case that we can work with … since we have an extreme right. In Norway, the same,” said Anna Stamou, who works with the Muslim Association of Greece and is Elghandour’s wife.

She too says she has no delusions that extremist groups will cease to exist.

“The far-right will always exist here [and] everywhere because this is how democracy works … If we can work under a democratic environment, we can deal with [extremists], but on a democratic level. We want to keep them unarmed,” she said. 

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