Leaders of Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn, the country’s third most popular party in parliament during the debt crisis, were guilty of running a criminal organisation, a Greek appeals court ruled this morning.

Golden Dawn entered parliament for the first time in 2012 on the back of an anti-austerity and anti-immigrant agenda, becoming Greece’s third-most popular party at the peak of its worst financial crisis since World War Two.

But the killing of 34-year old leftist rapper Pavlos Fyssas by a party supporter in 2013 prompted a crackdown that led prosecutors to arrest and investigate Golden Dawn leaders and lawmakers over a series of crimes.

Immediately before the landmark ruling the court found Golden Dawn sympathiser and self-confessed murderer Yiorgos Roupakias guilty of killing Fyssas.

Greek police fired teargas into crowds gathered outside the courthouse after fringe elements in the crowd hurled petrol bombs at police, according to Reuters witnesses.

It was the first time that elected politicians had been jailed in Greece since a military coup in 1967 Golden Dawn failed to win a single parliamentary seat in last year’s parliamentary election that brought the conservative New Democracy party to power.

There is a threshold of three percent of the popular vote required for a party to enter Parliament.

Prosecutors had charged 65 people, including 18 former Golden Dawn lawmakers with being members of a criminal organisation (Golden Dawn).

Their trial started in April 2015. At the time, the party said it was the victim of a politically motivated witch-hunt.

Dozens of others on trial, party members and alleged associates, face convictions on charges that range from murder to perjury, linked to a spate of violent attacks on immigrants and left-wing activists.

Today’s verdict now sets the stage for the high-profile case to proceed with the court looking into individual charges for the murder of rapper

Fyssas and other violent attacks, including the murder of a migrant.

Tens of thousands rallied outside the heavily policed appeals court area, holding banners reading “Fascism, Never Again” and “Freedom for the People, Death to Fascism”.

“We must send a message to the younger generations, a message against fascism,” said 69-year old Sophia. “It’s our duty to democracy to be here today, to show we are standing up against such criminal actions.”

Human rights group Amnesty International, which helped organise a network to record racist violence in Greece, said Wednesday’s verdict would boost efforts to fight hate crimes.

“The accusations against the leaders and members of Golden Dawn, including the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, expose a fissure that exists not just within Greece but across Europe and beyond,” said Nils Muiznieks, Europe director at Amnesty.

Source: Reuters