Prison release of Golden Dawn founder angers Greek anti-fascists

<span>Nikos Michaloliakos leaving his house in Athens after his conviction in 2020.</span><span>Photograph: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP</span>
Nikos Michaloliakos leaving his house in Athens after his conviction in 2020.Photograph: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP

The unrepentant founder of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, who insisted followers addressed him as the Fuhrer, has been released from prison four years into a sentence of 13 and a half years, having been convicted of operating a criminal organisation that posed as a political party.

Nikos Michaloliakos, a Holocaust denier and admirer of Adolf Hitler, was allowed to return to his home in Athens this week although his “conditional discharge” was only made public on Thursday.

The news sparked fury among members of the country’s anti-fascist movement. “It’s a scandalous decision,” said Petros Constantinou, the chief coordinator of the front, known as Keerfa. “It did not need to happen and will give the green light to fascists to regroup and continue attacks ahead of the European elections.”

He said operatives of the far-right, ultra-nationalist party still ran branches in Thessaloniki despite it being officially disbanded.

Michaloliakos, an anti-vaxxer who spent a large part of his imprisonment in a rehabilitation clinic after becoming seriously ill during the coronavirus pandemic, was sentenced at the end of a landmark trial to 13-and-a-half years in jail for crimes ranging from violent attacks on immigrants, to weapons offences and the murder of an anti-fascist musician.

Greek media reported his release application had been vigorously opposed by a state prosecutor. The magistrate had argued that despite meeting the criterion of serving three fifths of his jail term, once pre-trial detention was taken into account, the 67-year-old showed no remorse for his actions and should not be set free.

The discharge, agreed by a judicial council in the central town of Lamia, stipulated that Michaloliakos was banned from fraternising with other far-right activists and would have to present himself at a local police station once a month. He was also forbidden from leaving the greater Athens region of Attica.

Golden Dawn rose to prominence during Greece’s near decade-long debt crisis, drawing support from segments of the population who were hit hard by austerity measures that successive governments were forced to enact in exchange for bailout loans from the EU and the International Monetary Fund. At the height of its power, the extremists were the nation’s third-biggest political force, with 18 seats in parliament.

Golden Dawn hit squads sowed such terror on the streets the party was branded Europe’s most violent neo-fascist group. Gangs, often riding motorbikes, dressed in black and wielding batons, knuckledusters and worse, actively sought out and targeted enemies, real and perceived, starting with immigrants and leftists.

Tellingly, far-right parties elsewhere steered clear of the Greek neo-Nazis.

Analysts expressed surprise at the speed with which Michaloliakos’ request for release had been handled. The disgraced leader returned home as the Greeks marked Holy Week, in the run-up to Orthodox Easter this weekend.

“What needs to be asked is whether the criteria that would apply for any other leader of a criminal organisation were applied in this case,” said Kostis Papaioannou, the director of Signal, a research centre tracking the far right. “There’s not a chance in a million that if Michaloliakos were a convicted leader of an armed group of the far left he would be freed like this.”

The move came days after Greece’s supreme court banned another extremist party, the Spartans, from contesting next month’s European elections, arguing the organisation, which has 11 MPs, “aims at the weakening and demise of the democratic political system, particularly through the use of violence or incitement to violence”.

Several of its deputies face charges of electoral fraud, with the fate of the Spartans’ parliamentary group expected to be decided soon by a special court.

“As in other European countries, the far right and its political ideas are gaining traction in Greece,” noted the veteran leftwing author and Golden Dawn expert Dimitris Psarras. “But Golden Dawn does not have any real power or political expression and Michaloliakos is a spent force. His release does not spell danger for Greece.”