"We are powerful and we will soon be dominant": Golden Dawn's intimidation in the courtroom

How can Greeks ever be sure of justice for neo-Nazi crimes?

Your porno TV channels called me guilty. I will rub the court's decision in your face. We are powerful and soon we'll be dominant.

These were the words last week of Ilias Kasidiaris, second in command of the Greek neo-nazi party Golden Dawn, after leaving the court where was acquitted of being an accessory to the bodily harm and armed robbery of a student in 2007.

In a courtroom occupied by Golden Dawn supporters who wouldn't allow "others" to sit and who would throw abusive remarks at the victim and the witnesses through their teeth, the atmosphere was tense. The few non-Golden Dawn attendees who managed to get hold of a seat, speak of a trial in which the judge lost control early on and the defence was allowed to pressure witnesses and cast doubt over the charges that Kasidiaris had helped those who attacked the student flee in his car. His licence plate number appeared to place him at the scene, but the jury thought different.

Kasidiaris's lawyer argued that users of the Indymedia website had "targeted" him by publishing his license plate number. The claim was supported by the sole testimony of a journalist. No print-out or link to the post was provided.

Was this really enough to convince the jury, or did intimidation play a role? 

"People with long hair were checked before entering the room," one of those present, who prefers to remain anonymous, tells me.

On the contrary, the Golden Dawn guys who had swamped the room from early on, were free to roam in and out unchecked. During the trial Kasidiaris's lawyer was allowed to put on a show, bombarding the witnesses with questions, interrupting their answers and on occasion kept them on the stand after the judge had told them to stand down.

This account points to a phenomenon many have suspected for some time: when it comes to Golden Dawn, Greece's judicial system is unable to enforce proper procedure.

This doesn't only happen with Golden Dawn: less than a month ago, eight policemen were acquitted of attacking and severely injuring a student, despite there being video footage of the incident. But it's the cases involving neo-Nazis that truly shock. In September, a member of the party died in Sparta after a bomb blew up in his hands. (His desired target is still unknown.) An accomplice was arrested, 60 more bombs were found in his house, yet he was allowed to walk free by order of the state prosecutor and the case has since vanished from our radar. It's this same body that failed to rule Golden Dawn illegal when the racist, violent character of the party and its bloody past became known to all.

Kasidiaris, who came to international attention last year when he physically attacked an opposition MP on live TV, was acquitted. But the court was also guilty of something far worse: not protecting witnesses and attendees from pressure and intimidation. According to my source:

After leaving the court, I saw 3-4 guys with shaved heads standing next to the police, taking pictures of anyone who came out of the court. I walked away to avoid being targeted.

How can one seek out justice for the transgressions of the far-right when the police so blatantly disregard the safety of the public? Some Golden Dawn supporters have been arrested and convicted of violent crimes, when they have been caught red-handed. But the party's leadership openly encourages, aids and even perpetrates violence, yet goes unpunished. This atmosphere of impunity will only further discourage witnesses from testifying.

What sort of message does this send, and will Greeks who demand justice ever get to see a system that can deliver it?

Golden Dawn's Ilias Kasidiaris (centre) leaves court in Athens on 4 March. (Photo: Getty.)

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images
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How the refugee crisis became invisible

Since the failed coup in Turkey, there are on average 200 refugees a day arriving in Greece. But the world's media has gone home.

The image was familiar for the volunteers in Lesvos that still man the beaches where refugees arrive by boat from Turkey. It’s been many months since boats carried 256 people in a single day across the narrow passage of sea. The refugee crisis seems to be giving way to much larger geopolitical issues to the east of the Greek coastline. Those refugees stuck here might soon be joined by the thousands that remain in Turkey as the situation in Syria deteriorates. There is no solution is on the horizon for the bloodshed.

Almost 300 people arrived that Thursday last week, a number not seen since a deal between the EU and Turkey was reached this spring to curtail the flow of refugees heading for Europe. Following the failed coup attempt in Turkey last month, however, something has changed. 3,300 people have arrived on the islands of the eastern Aegean since, according to the official data released by the Greek state, averaging around 200 a day. Reports on the ground suggest that the traffickers operating in the area are expecting a new wave of refugees leaving Turkey soon, a card for Tayip Erdogan to play in his bid for visa-free entry to Europe for Turkish citizens.

Since the deal – and unlike last year, which saw more than a million people passing through Greece and heading up the Balkan corridor towards Germany and the prosperous north – the crisis has taken a new shape, and it’s now largely invisible. Lesvos, the island formerly seen as the frontline of the refugee crisis, is unseen, abandoned by the media and the tourists that used to be its main source of income.

The refugees unlucky enough to be stuck in Greece after the borders to Macedonia closed are distributed in camps across the country. The camps established at the points of arrival, known as “hotspots”, are overcrowded to breaking point, with violence often erupting between refugees, locals and the police. Instances of violence against unaccompanied minors by police were even recorded in the Moria camp in June.

Now, for the close to 60.000 people who in limbo while their asylum applications are processed, it’s a waiting game that looks more like prison than anything else. Meanwhile, deportations back to Τurkey have effectively stopped because of the political insecurity and terrorist attacks there, despite the fact it is still deemed a “safe third country”.

Forty-nine camps have been set up across Greece, but the government has announced that more are on their way. Local business owners in Crete have already protested the news of a camp for 2,000 refugees established on the island. After what happened in Lesvos the tourism industry – arguably the country’s most important, contributing close to 10 per cent of the GDP – is nervous.

Inside the camps, reports of overcrowding, poor hygiene, illness, violence, trafficking and drugs are on the rise. Even in Greece, Yazidis are not safe in the camps, and special arrangements have had to be made for them. The Greek and Albanian mafias have infiltrated camps on the mainland, especially around Thessaloniki, and are pushing hard drugs, which have become a solution for some of the refugees stuck there. Around the downtown area of Victoria in Athens, reports by the BBC and Refugees Deeply have found underage boys prostituting themselves in the nearby parks for 5 euros.

Here is the real problem: while the numbers arriving are nowhere near those of last year, the infrastructure available to take them in is now so strained that every new arrival counts. The margin for the most vulnerable between safety and harm, has narrowed to nothing. The Katsikas camp, near my hometown in north-western Greece, paints a grim picture. Set up hastily on the site of an old military airport, it is almost entirely unsuitable to host the simple military tents the refugees are expected to live in. The ground turns to mud every time it rains, and it rains often. There are scorpions and snakes wandering the camp.

Living conditions are so horrible that according to the camp’s director, Filippas Filios, 200 people recently walked out and abandoned it, preferring to try their luck crossing the Albanian or Macedonian borders on foot. From the 1,020 people that were transported here between March and April, just 520 remain. Another space is being prepared to take those remaining before September – an abandoned orphanage. Unlike most of Greece, the weather here is rainy and cold. If preparations stall and they are caught outside, these people are unlikely to remain in the camp under such conditions. Traffickers who have been active in the area for decades, are banking on just that.

The EU, via Angela Merkel saying that “we must agree on similar deals with other countries, such as in North Africa, in order to get better control over the Mediterranean sea refugee routes”, is hinting at a similar deal to that with Turkey to try and deal with the flow from Libya. With the current arrangement looking shaky, and those living with the consequences being ignored or even blamed for their predicament, we are on perilous ground. There is hardly anything more that Greece can do.

What’s worse is that in the last few months – under pressure from the EU – the Greek government has been dismantling the solidarity networks that alleviated much of the weight of the crisis last year. But they too, where they still hold, are creaking under the weight of the situation. The conditions in some of these informal camps resemble those in the official camps. The more these people are trapped in either situation, the more likely they are to become victims again, be it of trafficking, drugs or violence. For now, the pro-refugee sentiment still holds in Greece, but the illusionary structure of a “dealt with” crisis might come crashing down sooner than most realise.

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.