Greece stepping up crackdown on neo-Nazi party: Analysts

ATHENS (AFP) - The authorities in Greece are renewing their efforts to neutralise aggressive neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, which is under investigation for murder and other crimes, observers say.

Over the weekend, three more Golden Dawn lawmakers were placed in pre-trial custody, joining party leader Nikos Michaloliakos and two more senior members behind bars.

A third of Golden Dawn's 18 lawmakers are now in prison and half have been indicted on charges of belonging to, or running, a criminal organisation since the investigation began last year.

Armed with testimony from former party members, magistrates are trying to prove that Golden Dawn orchestrated attacks on migrants and political opponents, culminating in the deaths of a Pakistani immigrant and a Greek anti-fascist musician last year.

Court documents have also linked Golden Dawn to three attempted murders and numerous assaults, and witnesses have reportedly testified that senior party members were involved in extortion and possible arms smuggling.

Speaking after the murder of rapper Pavlos Fyssas in September by a Golden Dawn member, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras vowed to "eradicate" the "shame" of neo-Nazism in Greece.

The crackdown was seen to have slowed by November, when two Golden Dawn members were murdered outside a party office by suspected far-left extremists.

But on the sidelines of events marking Greece's assumption of the six-month European Union presidency last week, Greek Justice Minister Haralambos Athanassiou told reporters that the investigation was "progressing steadily".

Following police raids of suspects' homes, Greek media have published a flood of photos and videos of Golden Dawn lawmakers cradling firearms, giving fascist salutes and making racist and anti-Semitic statements.

Nevertheless, the party remains Greece's third-most-popular in opinion polls, with the support of up to 10 per cent of voters.

"Judicial authorities are determined to neutralise and render inactive this party, whose operation has crossed the line, even in the eyes of the most conservative (voters and politicians)," said Ms Sophia Vidali, a criminologist at the University of Thrace.

Dr Dimitris Christopoulos, a university professor and prominent member of the Hellenic League of Human Rights, said the challenge prosecutors face is establishing "a link between suspected acts and actual charges".

"We are on the right track. It seems that the judicial process is accelerating, there is a certain (political) pressure given the present situation," he told AFP.

Dr Christopoulos highlighted the case of Golden Dawn MP Stathis Boukouras, who was taken to a prison in his native Peloponnese - in contrast to the other suspects, who are incarcerated in a high-security prison in Athens.

Boukouras, who has entrusted his defence to one of Greece's best-known criminal attorneys, is believed to have provided useful information to magistrates.

"Boukouras has expressed the willingness to give details on the way the party functioned," Dr Christopoulos said.

"He will operate as a Trojan horse."

The suspects deny that Golden Dawn is a criminal organisation and claim to be the victims of political persecution.

Golden Dawn has announced its intention to challenge the Greek government's crackdown in the European Court of Human Rights, and branded the procedures leading to the pre-trial detention of party leader Michaloliakos and other MPs as "illegal and unconstitutional".

Formerly on the fringe of Greek politics, openly xenophobic and anti-Semitic Golden Dawn won entry to Greece's 300-seat Parliament for the first time in elections in June 2012, tapping into widespread anger over immigration and austerity reforms in the debt-ridden country.

Greece's main opposition party, Syriza, had previously accused Samaras of dragging his feet in prosecuting Golden Dawn in order to avoid alienating right-wing hardliners within his own conservative party.

Greece is to hold local elections in May, and Samaras's coalition government is expected to lose ground to anti-austerity parties including Syriza and Golden Dawn.