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Greek right-wing extremist politicians jailed

A Greek police anti-terrorism squad arrested leading parliamentarians from the right-wing extremist party "Golden Dawn" - an unprecedented event. The move met with a positive response in Greece.

Even the strongest opponents of the Golden Dawn party didn't expect it: on Saturday (28.09.2013), in front of live cameras, the party's entire leadership team was arrested, handcuffed by police and taken to police headquarters in Athens for questioning.

Public prosecutors have accused the right-wing parliamentarians of participation in a criminal organization. Their party offices, private homes and even their offices in the Greek parliament's plenary building will be searched - it's an unprecedented event in Greek democracy.

Supporters and members of extreme-right Golden Dawn party hold Greek national flags as they sing the national anthem outside the Greek police headquarters in Athens September 28, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/John Kolesidis)

Supporters of the far-right party protested against the arrests.

Party leader Nikolaos Mikhaloliakos was among those arrested, as was parliamentarian Yannis Lagos, who is responsible for unions, and party spokesperson Ilias Kassidiaris. Party group spokesman Christos Pappas, who is said to be the criminal organization's deputy president, turned himself in on Monday, while police are still searching for 12 others. Elections in June 2012 resulted in a total of 18 Golden Dawn seats in the Greek parliament.

'Prosecute deeds, not attitudes'

The stabbing to death of Greek hip-hop musician Pavlos Fyssas in an Athens working class suburb two weeks ago Wednesday (18.09.2013) apparently triggered the crackdown against the right-wing extremist politicians.

The suspected culprit was caught red-handed and identified himself as a member of the right-wing extremist party - which the party denied. Following the crime, members of the government seized every opportunity to stress that the state cannot tolerate violent acts motivated by fascism.

"In a democracy, we mustn't prosecute attitudes, but rather concrete deeds. Criminal activities carried out by [Golden Dawn] thugs must be punished," said conservative head of government Antonis Samaras in an interview with the Athens-based weekly Axia - just hours before the police intervention.

Most commentators welcomed the clampdown against Golden Dawn. "I've never been so thrilled about seeing people in handcuffs before," said political analyst Yannis Pretenderis on Greek television's Mega Channel, adding that those people are now being prosecuted under democratic rules they had intended to override.

Greek students march outside the Parliament in Athens during an anti-fascism protest on September 25, 2013. (Photo ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Greeks protested against racism in the days leading up to the arrests

Alexis Papakhelas, the director of the Liberal-Conservative daily Kathimerini, called the arrests a welcome surprise. "We would never have thought that we'd experience something like it," Papakhelas said on Athens-based TV channel Skai. He paid tribute to the minister of public order, Nikos Dendias. "He took on considerable risk, because his approach was not met with approval by everybody in the government."

Legal perils and risks

Some commentators said the big challenge was now to make the clampdown on Golden Dawn legally watertight. With this unprecedented event, after all, there are no legally binding rules for how to handle right-wing extremist parties.

What does seem clear at this stage is that the party will not be banned - not least because Greece lacks a constitutional court which could issue such a ban. That's why minister Dendias plans to base his action on existing penal law, categorizing Golden Dawn as a criminal organization under those laws.

"I do see the condition of such a categorization fulfilled," said constitutional expert Giorgos Sotirellis on Mega Channel, adding: "that would mean that the members of this criminal organization don't have immunity from criminal prosecution - even though they are elected members of parliament."

But this legal route also entails some risks, warned Sotirellis. "A member of parliament can only be deprived of their seat if a legally binding verdict has been issued by a court of last instance," Sotirellis said.

"That can take a while. Until then, they can keep their seat in parliament."

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