ATHENS - Greek police cracked down on the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, arresting its founding leader and four other members of parliament Saturday, following the murder of a leftist musician allegedly by a party activist.
The five Golden Dawn lawmakers, including founder Nikos Michaloliakos, were held overnight and are under investigation for belonging to a criminal organisation, a court source said.
The arrests came a day after Golden Dawn threatened to pull its lawmakers out of parliament, a move that could trigger a political crisis in the recession-hit country.
In dawn raids, Greek anti-terror police arrested Michaloliakos, who founded the party in 1980, along with party spokesman and MP Ilias Kasidiairis and three other lawmakers.
Michaloliakos is also under investigation for a separate charge of leading a criminal organisation.
The five will remain under arrest pending the outcome of a judicial investigation into the possible charges to be laid, a process of up to five days, a court source said.
MP Golden Dawn party Panagiotaros Ilias is escorted by police officers to the prosecutor, in Athens. PHOTO/AFP
The serious nature of the case could lead to discussion in parliament to strip the deputies of their parliamentary immunity.
Golden Dawn faced mounting pressure after a self-confessed neo-Nazi was arrested over the fatal stabbing of popular hip-hop musician Pavlos Fyssas, 34, on September 18, a killing that sparked nationwide protests.
The police sweep came after Greece's supreme court, which has been charged with investigating the far-right group, issued arrest warrants for some 30 members.
Golden Dawn on Saturday urged its followers to demonstrate against what it called an "illegal decision", and several hundred faithful gathered outside the police station where the suspects were being held.
Amid a sea of Greek flags, the protesters chanted the party's slogan, "Blood, honour, Golden Dawn", watched over by anti-riot police.
"Golden Dawn is still there, it will not retreat. You can't put its ideas in prison, we will fight to the end," Artemis Matheopoulos, a party MP, told AFP.
Leader of ultra-right wing Golden Dawn party Nikos Michaloliakos was arrested.PHOTO/AFP
"We are not afraid of anything!" shouted one of those arrested, Ilias Panagiotaros, as he was led away.
Deputy prosecutor Charalambos Yourliotis told AFP: "I have finished my inquiry and I transferred the dossier to the prosecutor of the supreme court. It (the party) is a criminal organisation."
The crackdown on Golden Dawn also comes as Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras heads to Washington for meetings Tuesday with key creditor the International Monetary Fund.
"This is not just a message for internal use, to show that it puts a halt to violence, this is a message directed outwards, to Europe and others," said political analyst Ilias Nikolakopoulos.
Any trial would be 'fair'
Greek Justice Minister Charalambos Athanassious said Saturday that if the arrested party members are prosecuted, "the trial will be fair... Our democracy is strong".
Golden Dawn leader Michaloliakos has threatened to pull the group's deputies out of parliament, a move that would prompt by-elections in 15 regions around the country.
Supporters of the extreme far-right Golden Dawn party protest while holding Greek flags. PHOTO/AFP
The far-right party currently has 18 lawmakers in the 300-seat body, and prior to the musician's murder was the third most popular political grouping in the country.
"If the country enters a cycle of instability, it is those who demonise Golden Dawn who will be responsible, not (us)," Michaloliakos told reporters on Thursday.
By-elections could hurt Samaras's coalition government, which has a slim majority of 155 MPs, and could cast into doubt Greece's ability to fulfil its obligations to creditors on multi-billion-euro bailouts.
Formerly on the fringe of Greek politics, Golden Dawn has skyrocketed to popularity by tapping into widespread anger over unpopular reforms in a country that is currently slogging through its sixth year of recession and where unemployment among the youth stands at a staggering 60 percent.
It went from 19,000 votes a few years ago to over 426,000 in June 2012 elections after pledging to "scour the country" clean of illegal immigrants.
Riot policemen observe as supporters of the extreme far-right Golden Dawn party protest. PHOTO/AFP
The party, whose leader has denied the Holocaust, has sent black-clad squads to smash market stalls owned by migrants, held torch-lit rallies lambasting political opponents as "traitors" and "thieves", and organised food donations exclusively for ethnic Greeks.
It has also been blamed for a series of brutal attacks on migrants and political opponents, though it strenuously denies any responsibility and claims to be the victim of slander.
"We are rejoicing that the anti-fascist and anti-racist movement has forced the prime minister to make these arrests," said human rights group Keerfa in a statement, adding that the politicians have "for too long protected the action of neo-Nazis".