ATHENS — Just over a year-and-a-half after the leaders of Greece’s Golden Dawn party and dozens of supporters were imprisoned after the neo-fascist group was deemed a criminal organization, an Athens court on Wednesday began hearing appeals against the convictions.
As a large crowd gathered outside the Athens appeals court complex near the city center to demand that no leniency be shown to the party’s imprisoned members, the proceedings appeared to be as momentous as the initial trial that put them behind bars.
“We won a great battle but the war isn’t over,” said Kostas Papadakis, a lawyer representing an Egyptian fisherman who was the victim of a brutal attack by members of Golden Dawn in 2012, the peak of Greece’s financial crisis and the party’s heyday.
The October 2020 verdict wrapped up one of Greece’s most significant political trials, with 50 members or supporters of Golden Dawn convicted of crimes, 18 of them former legislators. One party member was found guilty of murdering the leftist rapper Pavlas Fyssas, a crime that precipitated the party’s unraveling. Golden Dawn’s leader, Nikos Michaloliakos, and five other former legislators received 13-year prison terms.
“It would be a scandal to clear them,” Mr. Papadakis said, adding that he thought that most of the initial sentences were too lenient, and noting that three former lawmakers had already been released.
Magda Fyssa, the mother of Mr. Fyssas, said she believed that Greece would not relent on its tolerance of Golden Dawn. “We put a whole party in prison,” she said. “That’s a big thing and we’re here to make sure it stays that way.”
Exoneration is highly unlikely, lawyers say, pointing to overwhelming evidence of the party’s involvement in organized attacks on migrants and leftist critics that was set out in the court’s official decision, running over 12,000 pages, and made public a few weeks ago. A prosecutor from the original trial has also lodged an appeal, calling for stiffer terms for the party’s leadership, so the appeals process could go either way.
In any case, the size of the case file and the slow pace of the Greek justice system means a verdict on the slew of appeals will take two or three years.
By then, most of the Golden Dawn members who are still in prison will have been released, lawyers say, noting that time served in prison is usually a third of sentences issued by Greece’s courts.
One prominent legal expert, who was a prosecution witness at the initial trial, which ran for five-and-a-half years, said an appeals trial for Golden Dawn should not be happening at all.
“For cases like these, when the evidence has been examined so meticulously by a court comprising experienced judges, there should not be the option of appeal,” said Nikos Alivizatos, an expert in constitutional law who was attacked by Golden Dawn members and sympathizers during a discussion of an immigration law in 2010.
Mr. Alivizatos added that he would favor legislative reform that would curtail the rights of convicted former legislators of Golden Dawn.
Of particular concern is the neo-fascist party’s imprisoned former spokesman, Ilias Kasidiaris, who has formed a new extreme-right party and has been campaigning from his prison cell ahead of Greek parliamentary elections that are due by June 2023 at the latest.
Although Greek law does not allow convicted criminals to run for election as the head of a party, they can run as legislators.
“For very serious crimes like these, the court should be able to revoke these rights,” Mr. Alivizatos said.
Many believe that Golden Dawn — broken and divided — has little chance of regaining the support it enjoyed when it was the third largest party in the Greek Parliament during the social upheaval that erupted during the country’s protracted debt crisis.
But the risk of its resurgence remains, political analysts say.
Opinion polls earlier this year showed Mr. Kasidiaris’ party, Greeks for the Fatherland, nearing the minimum 3 percent threshold for entering Parliament, though support for the party has recently dipped to 2 percent.
“It would be difficult for Golden Dawn to come back to life in its previous form,” said Antonis Liakos, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Athens. “But the ideologies of racism, nationalism and anti-politics that created it have not disappeared,” he said, citing as an example a resurgence in Greece of far-right discourse on migrant issues.
The initial convictions were a reflection of Greek society’s sense of justice, Mr. Liakos said. “But that was due to massive and multifaceted mobilization of civil society,” he said, noting that “Greek society’s democratic reflexes are not automatic.”
Among the four imprisoned former Golden Dawn lawmakers present in court on Wednesday were the party’s deputy leader, Christos Pappas, and Ioannis Lagos, who asked to be released from prison so that he could exercise his rights as a legislator in the European Parliament.
The party’s leader, Mr. Michaloliakos, was represented by a lawyer who requested an adjournment, saying his client was suffering from “delusions” following a two-month hospitalization for a serious coronavirus infection. The proceedings are set to continue on July 6.
Outside the court, Artemis Papathanassiou, a 22-year-old student of politics, said Golden Dawn itself might be gone but the threat of fascism was real. “We see it with Kasidiaris’ party, we see it with all this new backlash against the refugees,” she said.
“It’s like a weed, you stamp it out but it creeps back. We have to fight back,” Ms. Papathanassiou added, “every time.”