"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.

Beijing smog. Getty
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China’s battle to breathe

Why smog is causing social unrest.

This is a war where you can’t even see your own enemy.” These are the words of the Chinese journalist Chai Jing in her documentary about air pollution, Under the Dome. Released in February 2015, the film was viewed online more than 150 million times in three days before it was removed by the government.

The enemy that provoked such a reaction was PM2.5, a microscopic particulate in the air that can penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream. It can cause health problems, including heart disease and lung cancer. Air pollution is a problem around the world but is particularly bad in China, where, as a result of rapid industrialisation (fuelled partly by Western demand for cheap products), concentration levels of PM2.5 are dangerously high. In March 2014, after nearly a decade of worsening air quality, the government declared a “war against pollution”.

The air quality index (AQI) in Beijing hit an average 130 in January this year, and it often exceeds 300 (although year-on-year levels have fallen slightly). The World Health Organisation recommends below 20 as healthy.

Recently, this near-invisible enemy has taken tangible form. The annual National People’s Congress, the parliamentary gathering attended by nearly 3,000 regional delegates from across China, will open in Beijing on 5 March. Smog will be at the top of its agenda. There are three reasons for this: the public health issue, international environmental commitments and the threat that toxic air poses to China’s political stability.

Last December, a group of artists fitted smog masks on statues in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, in south-western China, to draw attention to rising air pollution. Riot police were sent in, eight artists were arrested, the central Tianfu Square was blockaded and shopkeepers were told to alert the police to anyone buying large quantities of masks. Unauthorised protests are banned in China, but as one artist told the BBC: “There is no regulation that bans citizens from walking while wearing masks.”

For the inhabitants of China’s cities, there is no alternative if you want to minimise the harm done by breathing in PM2.5. The smog is an inescapable fact of daily life and one that undermines the rising living standards that have so effectively kept city-dwellers from voicing discontent with the government. Besides the events in Chengdu, there were protests in the city of Xi’an in the north-west and lawsuits against other local governments for failing to tackle the problem. A meme on Weibo, one of the most popular Chinese social media platforms, shows a panda wearing a smog mask bearing the slogan: “Chengdu, let me breathe!”

Citizens are starting to expect the government to do more to clean up the air. “People in the West . . . assume that dissatisfactions [in China] are about things like censorship and lack of political freedoms,” Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine, said by Skype. “But what really can motivate people are much more tangible things that affect their daily life.”

As a friend, a gallery assistant from Beijing who did not want to be named because of her fears about Western media, told me: “Worrying about the air and the water is just always occupying a part of your mind. You can’t forget about it.” She said she hopes that the smog will at least force the government to act.

Clean air is increasingly becoming a commodity. High-end air purifiers can cost £1,300-plus and an air quality monitor can sell for more than £100. Yann Boquillod, the founder of AirVisual, a Beijing-based start-up that produces tools to monitor air quality, told me that government red alerts about the smog are great for business, increasing demand for his products.

The government only started to publish information on air quality in 2012. Jennifer Turner, the director of the China Environment Forum at the US think tank the Woodrow Wilson Centre, describes this change as an element of the “most innovative policymaking in China”. “It was a risky action on the part of the government but, at the same time, the people were getting upset. The government is making efforts to show accountability,” she told me. However, more recently there have been reports of officials ordering forecasters to stop issuing smog warnings.

With or without a warning, you can feel it when the air quality is bad. The likes of Zhao Hui, a wealthy businessman, send their children to school abroad, where “clean air and safe food are just as important as education”. Yet, for most people, foreign education isn’t an option, and anger about inequality can make the discontent all the more potent. “[The smog] affects everywhere, but it doesn’t affect everyone equally,” Wasserstrom said. “This is part of what makes the government anxious about these protests. There’s more of this feeling of this being part of a national conversation.”

“Everyone knows it, hates it and makes ironic jokes,” Badiucao, a Chinese political cartoonist, told me in an email. His smog cartoons are particularly popular, he thinks, because they are considered “not directly political . . . hence less risky to share”. But he also believes that, for the Chinese, the health of their children is “the last red line”.

For those who can’t afford to send their children abroad, dissatisfaction with the state is rising and they are making their voices heard. The Beijing Municipal Education Commission recently agreed to instal air purifiers in schools in response to complaints by parents, having rejected similar calls a year ago. In addition to the official channels, social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat (an online messaging service) allow people to voice discontent instantly and loudly.

The Chinese government is acutely aware of how combustible the situation has become. There is a saying that goes, “Zhi bao bu zhu huo” – “Paper cannot wrap fire.” Air purifiers and censorship can only do so much. No number of riot police can change one simple fact: that all over China, people can’t breathe. 

Amy Hawkins is a freelance journalist based in Beijing. You can follow her on Twitter @DHawkins93.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit