"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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.