"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.

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war