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Golden Dawn Party Faces Prosecution

–Christina M. Akrivopoulou, Appeals Asylum Authority, Greece

One of the most important recent events in Greece has been the attempt to prosecute the far-right Golden Dawn party. The ongoing prosecution raises important questions about the proper limits of toleration for ultra-nationalist, racist parties in a democracy.

Golden Dawn is a far right-extremist political party currently represented in the Greek parliament. Its origins date to the early 1980’s when it was created as a new Nazi political organization. It was the Greek financial crisis that brought forward Golden Dawn and transformed it into a political party. Golden Dawn was elected for the first time in the May 2012 elections; in the subsequent June elections, it returned 18 parliamentarians.

Several reasons help explain why Golden Dawn has emerged as a parliamentary political party: (1) the environment of popular disappointment over the deep financial crisis; (2) rising poverty and raging unemployment; (3) the continuing popular disapproval of the traditional ruling parties New Democracy and PASOK, which are considered to be corrupt and culpable for the current financial situation in Greece; and (4) an anti-immigrant, racist campaign which has appealed to a rising post-crisis nationalism and has been further fueled by the failure of the state to deal effectively with the huge problem of illegal immigration in Greece.

Over the past few years, Golden Dawn has promoted an ideology of violence and racism, has been connected with many racist attacks against immigrants, has had illegal involvement with the police forces in immigration cases and has produced a public form of offensive hate speech directed against the Jewish community, legal and illegal immigrants, and in general foreigners, institutions, politicians and journalists. The Council of Europe has expressed its concern regarding the rise of hate speech in Greece (COMDH(2013)6), pointing out the increase of racist and hate crimes in Greece and directly linking them to the Golden Dawn’s political activities.

A dialogue has also begun regarding the introduction of a stricter legal framework on hate speech and also on the possibilities of banning political parties with a highly racist orientation. But Greece has an old legislative framework regarding hate speech (Law 927/1979) and the two attempts to introduce a stricter framework both failed in the face of liberal opposition that underlined that tolerance in favor of hate speech is necessary in any well functioning democracy. The same liberal objections were raised over the issue of banning any political party supporting Nazism, Fascism and racism, and a bill on this issue was never introduced. Up until the restoration of Greek Democracy in 1974, after the seven year ‘Colonel’s dictatorship’, the militant democracy model of banning political parties was used to outlaw the Greek communist party. That politically painful tradition raises, even today, strong arguments against the banning of any political party, no matter what views it espouses.

On September 18 of this year, the violent murder of the anti-fascist musician Pavlos Fyssas by members of Golden Dawn opened once again a dialogue regarding banning the party. This time, Greek judges moved forward without new legislation. The Greek High Court of Annulment (Areios Pagos) on September 28 indicted the leader, deputies and members of Golden Dawn based on Art. 187 of the Greek Penal Code, which penalizes the formation and participation in a “criminal organization.” Thus, the Greek High Court not only considered Golden Dawn to be the abettor of Pavlos Fyssas’s homicide but also initiated a broader investigation into other criminal activities connected with Golden Dawn, including several reported racist and hate crimes, illegal possession of firearms, and money laundering. If the leader and members of Golden Dawn are actually convicted for the criminal acts that they are accused of, it would be within the Court’s discretion to deprive them indefinitely of their political rights, thus of their rights to vote and to be elected in public office.

A heated debate is now taking place on whether the Golden Dawn’s parliamentary members can in fact be prosecuted by the Areios Pagos Attorneys without the permission of the Greek parliament. Normally, according to Article 62 of the Greek Constitution, deputies are protected by parliamentary immunity, with the sole exception of felonies that have been caught in the act. In the view of the Areios Pagos and many Greek constitutionalists (namely Nikos Alivizatos, Yiannis Drossos, Giorgos Sotirellis, Charalambos Anthopoulos), the crime of leading or participating in a criminal organization is continuing in nature and thus by definition a case where the actors were caught in the act.

Many problems also arise if the prosecuted members of Golden Dawn decide either to resign from their parliamentary offices or to continue to be deputies while in custody. In the first case, additional elections could take place in the same districts where the Golden Dawn’s deputies were originally elected, perhaps doing further damage to fragile political stability in Greece and thus causing many constitutionalists to argue for a revision of the current legislative framework in order to prevent its abusive use. In the second scenario, the deputies while in custody are de facto deprived of their parliamentary status since they are physically unable to attend parliament meetings and voting. Thus in practical terms, their parliamentary chairs would remain ‘vacant.’

With a society seriously wounded by an ongoing financial, social and political crisis, traumatized and terrorized by the rise of racism, some voices raise the need for a strict legislative framework that will ban Golden Dawn and any future racist parties from participation to elections, that will cut off their state funding, and introduce strict anti-racist legislation. From another point of view liberal voices raise objections that such policies violate private autonomy and personal freedom. One could justly observe that the liberal voices press a fair point, at least outside of the context of the recent murder. Over the past years, policies regarding the further liberalization of rights were repressed in Greece (e.g. the non-acknowledgment of solidarity pacts for homosexuals) in order to satisfy conservative public opinion. A characteristic example is the Greek Conseil d’État (460/2013) judgment annulling favorable provisions regarding the acquisition of Greek citizenship by legal immigrants.

The prosecution of Golden Dawn thus raises interesting and difficult questions about the limits of toleration for illiberal parties in a liberal democracy. The good to come out of the incident may be that Greece is finally waking up to dangerous currents of racist politics.

Suggested Citation: Christina M. Akrivopoulou, Golden Dawn Party Faces Prosecution, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Oct. 28, 2013, available at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2013/10/golden-dawn-party-faces-prosecution

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Published on October 28, 2013
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