Golden Dawn party leader Nikos Michaloliakos, center, leaves his residence in Athens, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020.A court has…
Golden Dawn party leader Nikos Michaloliakos, center, leaves his residence in Athens, Greece, Oct. 22, 2020.

ATHENS, GREECE - The leader and founder of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party has turned himself in after a court ordered him and other senior members of the party to serve more than 13 years in prison for acting as a criminal organization under the guise of a political party.

It is a historic decision bound to have ramifications for other far-right parties across Europe.

However, as a three-member criminal court here ordered the leaders of the far-right Golden Dawn party to immediately serve out their prison sentences, many of them emerged defiant.

Nikos Michaloliakos, the leader of Golden Dawn, emerged from his home, vowing to quickly return.

“We will be vindicated!” he shouted. “I am proud to be taken to jail for my ideas, and we will be vindicated by history and the Greek people,” he said.

Michaloliakos and six other leading members of Golden Dawn were former members of the Greek parliament. One continues to hold a seat in the European Parliament.

They were convicted earlier this month and sentenced to more than 13 years in prison for leading a violent, decade-long campaign that targeted anyone who was on the political left and not Greek.

Despite their conviction, the defendants battled in court for days seeking to win some sort of leniency or suspended sentences that would allow them to serve their sentences at home. Even the court’s prosecutor recommended the neo-Nazis be kept out of jail on the grounds that they had had no prior criminal record.

After repeated delays and days of deliberation, though, the judge, Maria Lepenioti, ordered the entire leadership to serve out their sentences behind bars, insisting the order take immediate effect.

Police have already started rounding up Golden Dawn’s leaders. They are all expected to appeal their convictions.

After the five-year trial, prosecution attorneys such as Kostas Papadakis emerged elated, punching the air in victory.

This decision is historic, he said, because it debunks the mystique surrounding Golden Dawn.

With a symbol similar to a swastika, and stiff-arm salutes in praise of Adolf Hitler, Golden Dawn is a neo-Nazi party that emerged from obscurity, gaining surprising prominence during Greece’s grim economic crisis.

The party went from winning fewer than 20,000 votes in the 2009 general election to more than 7% of the vote and winning 21 parliamentary seats within three years.

It retained that hold through 2019, with 18 lawmakers in Greece’s Parliament.

No outright fascist party in Europe managed to make such gains in general elections for years.

What made Golden Dawn different, and potentially more dangerous than all other Nazi groupings in Europe, was that in public many of its members professed respectable politics and community service that put Greeks first.

Many of its members helped escort young women, protecting them at night across the country’s crime-infested capital. They came to the aid of senior citizens and brought food and clothes to many of those in need, including the tens of thousands of Greeks who had lost their jobs to the financial crisis.

But they were also seen as the kind of Nazis read about in history books, all driven by profound racism and an admiration for Adolf Hitler, his extremist rhetoric, the torchlit flag-waving rallies, the endless recruitment of young men and the operation of violent hit squads that frequently roamed the streets of the country, targeting immigrants, communist trade unionists, gay people and an antifascist rapper.

It was this deadly attack in 2013 against Pavlos Fyssas that finally forced authorities to crack down on the violent group and send its leaders to jail.

It remains unclear whether the party can and will remain operative. It is also unclear whether the end of Golden Dawn will stamp out far-right extremism and racist attitudes still strong within Greek society.