ATHENS - The leader of Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party was remanded in custody on Thursday pending trial on criminal charges, the first time an elected party chief has been put behind bars since a military coup nearly five decades ago.
The detention of Nikolaos Mihaloliakos, who has watched support for his party wane after a supporter was accused of murdering a popular rapper, is a reprieve for Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's government that has vowed to wipe out the party, calling it a “gang of neo-Nazis.”
Stunned by a court decision on Wednesday to free three other senior Golden Dawn lawmakers before their hearings, the government hailed Thursday's ruling as “the most dynamic confrontation of a neo-Nazi criminal gang in European, and possibly, world history.”
The government, which is hoping the arrests of senior Golden Dawn members will help it subdue a party seemingly untouched by accusations of violence and intimidation, praised the justice system for “doing its job”.
Mihaloliakos, gray-haired and bespectacled, shouted: “Long live Greece! Victory!” as he was led away from court in handcuffs in the early hours of Thursday. He denied charges of founding and belonging to a criminal organization during a six-hour plea session before a judge.
His wife and daughter, joined by Golden Dawn lawmakers, stood outside the court in the rain. “You are a diamond — don't buckle,” his wife Eleni Zaroulia, a fellow lawmaker, told him.
Flag-waving supporters yelled a popular party slogan: “Blood! Honor! Golden Dawn!”
Mihaloliakos was arrested on Saturday alongside four other party lawmakers and dozens more party members. A sixth lawmaker turned himself in on Sunday.
All six have denied the charges against them and say they are victims of political persecution.
Golden Dawn said the decision was “the most wretched conspiracy in modern Greek political history.”
“The jailing of our general secretary is totally unfair, unconstitutional and dictated by foreign centers of power,” it said in a statement posted on its website.
Mihaloliakos and fellow party lawmakers Yannis Lagos and Christos Pappas were ordered detained pending trial on Thursday. He was transferred to a high-security jail later in the day.
A day earlier, party spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris and fellow lawmakers Ilias Panagiotaros and Nikos Michos stormed out of the court celebrating their release as they kicked and spat at journalists and punched a camera out the way.
“I wonder how they can celebrate with such accusations on their back,” Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias, who described the scene as “repulsive, ugly and indicative of their neo-Nazi mentality”, told a Greek newspaper.
“But let's not kid ourselves ... they're Nazis, they behave like Nazis,” Dendias said.
Golden Dawn, for years a little-known group, rode a wave of anger at traditional parties, corruption and the country's deep economic crisis to win 18 seats in parliament in last year's election.
But the killing of anti-racism rapper Pavlos Fissas prompted protests across Greece and a crackdown on a party which has a swastika-like emblem and is accused of violent attacks on dark-skinned immigrants and political opponents, something it denies.
Despite shedding about a third of support since the killing, polls show it remains Greece's third most popular party.
“Every time they [the government] want to take measures against the people they always bring to light something else. Something big ... and then suddenly we have more taxes,” said pensioner Antonis Lavdas, who did not say which party he supported.