You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

When Prosecuting Far-Right Violence Fails

An unbelievably drawn-out trial in Greece has shown the dangers of delay.

Anti-riot policemen during clashes in September 2018 on the anniversary of Fyssas's killing (Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images)

With the room twisting and her vision cloudy, Eleftheria Tombatzoglou touched her hand to the back of her head. It came away covered in sticky blood. “Blood, honor, Golden Dawn,” she heard her attackers chant as they bolted down the corridor and out the front door.

The Favela Free Social Center had been targeted before: graffiti, stones, Molotov cocktails. But February 25 was the first time that vandalism had escalated to a violent raid. And all the while, the Greek far-right group Golden Dawn was on trial.

The men had appeared as Tombatzoglou and five other activists were arranging chairs for the social center’s weekly meeting. Community members come every Sunday to help plan dance lessons, history courses, photography classes, and book club meetups for the coming week.

A man wearing a thick black jacket and motorcycle helmet strolled in and smiled at Tombatzoglou. It wasn’t until several more men in motorcycle helmets and dressed in black rushed in that she realized what was happening. “No way,” she said.

“You know what happens next,” one of the men replied. The room erupted. The attackers lit flares, smashed tables and windows, and threw smoke bombs. “Faggots,” one shrieked. “Cunts.”

One of the men turned to Tombatzoglou and pulled a tire iron from his jacket. “In Piraeus? Seriously?” he yelled while striking her, implying that the city was Golden Dawn territory—no place for leftists.

“Time’s up,” another shouted, signaling to the others that they needed to leave. The assailants fled as easily and quickly as they had entered minutes earlier, onto their motorcycles and off into Piraeus’s looping, narrow alleyways. As was the case with many attacks before it, the Favela raid bore all the marks of a well-planned operation.    

Tombatzoglou, a 38-year-old lawyer, had half-expected to be targeted by the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party sooner or later. She is currently representing one of their victims in Greece’s ongoing multi-year trial against 69 Golden Dawn members. “I have read more than a hundred times the way they do attacks,” Tombatzoglou, who received eight stitches on her skull, told me a few weeks after the incident. “In a way, I was prepared. I know what these people are capable of doing, and I thought that sometime in my life I’d find myself in this situation.”

But another part of her was shocked: Why would the group risk such a brazen attack on a lawyer in a trial still underway?

Five years ago, on September 18, 2013, Golden Dawn member Giorgos Roupakias stabbed and killed Pavlos Fyssas, a 34-year-old anti-fascist rapper, outside a Piraeus café in full view of police officers. Outraged, Tombatzoglou became the Fyssas family’s civil suit lawyer in the broader trial the rapper’s slaying helped trigger.

Kicked off on April 20, 2015, the trial was predicted to span 18 months. It includes several civil suits and criminal charges against 69 Golden Dawn members, including the party’s core leadership, accused of operating a criminal organization, murder, racist violence, weapons possession, and money laundering, among other allegations. But with the trial dragging on and a verdict distant, Greek far-right groups, among them Golden Dawn, are reorganizing, carrying out further violence against refugees, migrants, political opponents—and individuals linked to the trial.

In early October, Tombatzoglou joined a dozen civil action lawyers calling for the trial to be sped up. The petition to newly-minted Justice Minister Michalis Kalogirou requested daily hearings in central Athens and asked that judges be freed up from other duties to focus on the case.

To date, the court has held more than 253 hearings, 250 prosecution witnesses took the stand, and the opposing legal teams entered into evidence tens of thousands of documents. Yet, with at least 230 defense witnesses waiting to testify and only eight to ten hearings taking place each month, it could now stretch into 2020. 

“The slower the trial moves, the better it is for Golden Dawn to gain time and organize politically,” said Thanasis Kampagiannis, another civil suit lawyer in the trial. He believes the defense team is “stalling” with lengthy hearings examining irrelevant documents. “And the slower the process, the more they sense that they have impunity.”

The evening of the attack on Favela, Golden Dawn chief Nikolaos Michaloliakos issued statement denying his party’s involvement—much as he did on November 1, 2017, dismissing claims that his supporters attacked Evgenia Kouniaki, another civil suit lawyer, outside an Athens courthouse in broad daylight. The denials in both cases were far-fetched: Kouniaki’s attackers had been passing out Golden Dawn fliers only moments before they swarmed her, one of them slugging her in the face until her nose gushed blood.

Nearly four decades ago, in 1980, Michaloliakos, a 25-year-old with an impressive resume of political violence and criminal charges, founded the national socialist journal Golden Dawn. The journal’s publications have included brazen praise for German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and his deputy Rudolf Hess, glowing profiles of American white supremacist outfits, and skepticism of the systematic extermination of Jews during the Holocaust.   

Golden Dawn did not register as a political party until 1993. The newly-founded party was small in numbers but militant. Golden Dawn’s supporters subjected political opponents to a series of assaults that culminated in 1998 with a brutal attack on left-wing student unionists. That incident left 24-year-old Dimitris Kousouris in a coma for more than a month.

The unruly band of neo-Nazis remained largely confined to the margins of political life until its swift rise to national prominence during a pair of elections in 2012. As has been the case with far-right and neo-fascist outfits in several European countries in recent years, Golden Dawn coasted on a flood of anger from the country’s financial crisis and migration, first entering the parliament the following year. By then the party’s highly organized violence against migrants and leftists had already gripped Greece for years, yet the attacks accelerated after the electoral success. Party jackboots toppled migrant-operated stalls in open-air markets, military-like gangs mobbed leftists and anarchists caught walking alone, and flag-waving motorcades patrolled neighborhoods home to Asian and African immigrants.

The arrests of dozens of Golden Dawn members in the wake of Fyssas’s murder led to sharp slump in violence. With its leaders behind bars for 18 months of pre-trial detention, its members accused in the court, and its supporters facing anti-fascist pushback every time they took to the streets, Golden Dawn was isolated and weakened. Many Greeks hoped that the wave of pogroms had finally come to an end.

But despite most Greeks supporting the crackdown on the party, Golden Dawn repeated its electoral success in January 2015, gaining more than six percent of the vote and becoming the third largest party in the Hellenic Parliament. With Golden Dawn proving resilient and its fifteen lawmakers still using the parliament as a platform to amplify its ultra-nationalist message, the return of vigilante violence was imminent. Last year, hate crimes more than doubled, with incidents targeting people for their race, ethnicity, or national origin growing from 48 to 133, when compared to 2016.

Golden Dawn members protest the imprisonment of their members of parliament in 2013.
Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Throughout 2018, far-right attacks—not all of them committed by Golden Dawn—have persisted. During several rallies against the Greek-Macedonian name agreement, masked men beat journalists, flashed pistols, set anarchist squats ablaze, and desecrated Jewish memorials. In the otherwise sleepy agricultural communities neighboring Athens, young Greeks beat, stabbed, and bludgeoned Pakistani migrant workers. And on Greek islands, far-right protesters fired flares and lobbed bottles and stones at asylum seekers protesting poor living conditions in the ramshackle refugee camps. 

When Naim Elghandour, the 64-year-old Egyptian-born president of the Muslim Association of Greece, received a grim anonymous phone call at home on January 18, the caller identified himself as member of Crypteia, a shadowy neo-Nazi group that garnered international media attention after attacking an Afghan family’s home in November 2017. “We are the group that kills, burns, hits, and tortures immigrants, mainly Muslims,” said the voice on the other end of the line.

Because he was at the time preparing to deliver an eight-hour testimony about Golden Dawn’s attacks on Greece-based Egyptian fishermen in the party’s trial, Elghandour found the timing suspicious. The following morning, he learned that at least three other civil society groups linked to the Golden Dawn trial had received the similar phone calls. “The police need to act because they know very well who these people are,” he told me. “They are an enemy of everyone, of humanity.”

And in early March, Greek counter-terrorism police arrested several members of Combat 18 Hellas, a national socialist group that had executed a three-year string of some 30 attacks on left-wing squats and Jewish cemeteries. During subsequent searches of the suspects’ homes, investigators discovered ammonium nitrate, Molotov cocktails, knives, shotguns, fascist literature, and small quantities of narcotics; they learned also that the Combat 18 Hellas included former Golden Dawn members.  

Tombatzoglou has arrived at a bleak conclusion in recent months: More attacks are inevitable, including those meant to intimidate lawyers and witnesses in the trial. And the more elusive a guilty verdict seems, the more far-right attackers will operate with apparent impunity. The law and its ever-more-hypothetical ability to punish, at this point, have failed to check  Golden Dawn activities.

“It’s in their nature,” she said of the Golden Dawn party. “They cannot exist without violence. There is no point in being a member of this party without the violence.”