ATHENS, GREECE - Leaders of Greece's third largest political party, the extreme right Golden Dawn, go on trial Monday on charges of operating as a criminal organization that allegedly carried out a campaign of violence against immigrants and left-wing opponents.
Party leader Nikos Michaloliakos and senior officials are among 69 defendants in the case closely watched by a country reeling from financial hardship and political uncertainty.
Founded by Michaloliakos as a tiny neo-Nazi organization in the mid-1980s, Golden Dawn transformed from being a marginal far-right group to a popular political party during the financial crisis that started in 2009.
It won 6.28 percent of the vote in general election three months ago, despite having state campaign funding axed.
The trial will be held inside a maximum security prison near Athens, where nearby schools and municipal services will be closed Monday over fears that several anti-Golden Dawn demonstrations planned in the area could turn violent.
Face prison sentences
Michaloliakos, a 57-year-old anti-immigrant firebrand, and 12 other members of parliament each face up to 10 years in prison if found guilty. Politicians and legal experts are divided over whether convictions could lead to the party being outlawed, with most opposing a ban.
Although Greek authorities don't keep official records on racist violence, human rights groups say a surge of attacks has occurred since 2010, typically against dark-skinned immigrants in Athens and frequently resulting in serious injury. Victims have reported that attackers - typically in groups and using brass knuckles and baseball bats - have often identified themselves as Golden Dawn supporters.
The party denies any involvement in attacks, however, claiming political opponents conspired against them after Golden Dawn exceeded 10 percent in opinion polls in 2013.
"They decided to put us handcuffs ... but in the face of all the mudslinging, Golden Dawn is the third strongest party in the country whether some people like it or not," Michaloliakos said after his release from prison last month, having served the maximum 18 months permitted under Greek law in pre-trial detention.
The crackdown was launched against Golden Dawn in 2013 after Greek rap singer Pavlos Fyssas was stabbed to death, allegedly by a party volunteer who was arrested after the street attack.