What the fight against far-right violence in Greece tells us

Patrick Strickland reports from Greece, where the consequences of impunity for violent crime against minority groups has left deep scars, offering a cautionary lesson for the rest of the world.

By: /
12 June, 2019
Protesters hold a banner depicting late Greek anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas during a rally marking four years since his death, in Athens, September 16, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
Patrick Strickland
By: Patrick Strickland

Athens-based journalist

For two days in January 2013, Faisal Luqman moped around his home in Lala Musa, Pakistan. He was unable to eat. He fell into sudden fits of sobbing. He disappeared into his room for hours at a time. Khadam Hussein Luqman and his wife, Sughran, worried that their eldest son had fallen ill or was depressed. Faisal refused to explain what lurked behind his sullen behaviour.

At the end of the second day, Faisal confessed: He had learned that a pair of Greek neo-Nazis had killed his 27-year-old brother, Shahzad, in Athens, where he had moved for work six years earlier.

In the months that followed, the family grappled with the loss of Shahzad, the third-youngest of nine siblings. They struggled to understand why anyone would want to kill the young man, who was quiet, hard working and soft mannered. “That time was the most painful, and we were asking ourselves thousands of questions,” Khadam, a 75-year-old retired factory worker, told Open Canada. He worried that he or his wife might die before seeing justice for their son.

Shahzad’s death came as a wave of far-right violence washed over Greece, in which supporters of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party and other far-rightists beat refugees with poles and sticks, bludgeoned migrant field workers with stones, and knifed political opponents in the streets. Altogether, the Athens-based Racist Violence Recording Network (RVRN) documented 166 attacks with 320 victims that year; more than 86 percent of those incidents targeted refugees and migrants.

Golden Dawn did not always command such a powerful presence in the streets. For much of its early history, the party remained obscure, largely focused on publishing a nationalist socialist journal by the same name, Golden Dawn, and importing much of its strategy and ideology from North American and European white nationalist and far-right groups. For nearly two decades after it registered as a political party in 1993, Golden Dawn enjoyed little electoral success.

But in the months leading up to Shahzad’s murder, Golden Dawn leveraged widespread discontent stemming from the country’s deepening economic crisis. Riding roughshod over the refugees and migrants its supporters blamed for Greece’s woes, the neo-fascist party surged in a pair of 2012 elections, effectively straddling parliamentary politics and street-level violence.

Those votes landed the party in the Greek parliament for the first time and turned the party into a model admired by likeminded American and European groups.

Yonous Muhammadi, an Afghan refugee and community organizer, explains that the government’s unwillingness to crack down on Golden Dawn and other far-right groups, even as attacks fanned out across the country, set the stage for tragedy. “Every day we had attacks at the time, and we were insisting that one day these attacks will have victims who will be killed,” Muhammadi said in an interview.

Golden Dawn supporters frequently threatened and twice attacked Muhammadi, now 45 and serving as president of the Greek Forum of Refugees, throughout the decade following his arrival in 2001.

In one incident in 2010, a group stormed the Afghan Community of Greece’s offices where he worked, kicking down the door as he taught a Greek-language class to newly-arrived refugee children and women. They beat him with sticks and flag poles and threatened his life. “One problem in Greece was that the judicial system didn’t do its job,” he recalled. “No one was being punished.”

With attacks mounting and little action by authorities, Muhammadi would distribute to refugees and migrants maps demarcating safe areas and no-go zones in Athens. Now, even after a spate of deaths and a belated crackdown on the party, the consequences of allowing the party to act with impunity for years are still being felt, Muhammadi said.

Recounting the days leading up to Shahzad’s death, Khadam dabbed an errant tear from his cheek with a handkerchief. During their second-to-last conversation, Shahzad recounted worrisome stories to his father. A few months earlier, in August 2012, a motorcade of black-masked attackers stabbed to death a 19-year-old Iraqi immigrant in Athens. Police suspected Golden Dawn was behind the attack, but no one was ever arrested or prosecuted for the slaying.

Following that incident, Shahzad told his father, he had heard near-daily rumours of late-night assaults targeting migrants. Only two days before that conversation, a man attacked Shahzad in the open-air market where he worked. Shahzad didn’t mention that incident, from which he emerged shaken but unharmed owing to his boss’s intervention. (Khadam only learned about the scuffle from his son’s friends and coworkers after Shahzad’s death.)

Khadam urged his son to avoid going out alone after dark. “I told him only one job is okay, that we were satisfied and that he was already sending us enough money,” he recalled, sitting in the offices of the Pakistan Community in Greece nonprofit in Athens. (With the financial support of local unions and support groups, Khadam has come to Greece for each hearing in the trial and appeal.) But despite Khadam’s plea for his son to ease up on his work load, Shahzad hoped to save up enough money to help pay for his sisters’ weddings.

Greece Golden Dawn party
Supporters of Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn wave national and party flags during a rally in Athens, February 3, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

A few days later, on January 17, 2013, Shahzad woke well before dawn. He readied himself and climbed onto his rickety yellow bicycle. Heading to work, he pedaled down a dark street in Athens’s Petralona neighbourhood. Behind him a motorcycle skidded to a halt. Two men armed with butterfly knives hopped off and approached him. They seized Shahzad. They stabbed him seven times. The knives tore into his shoulders, torso and heart. Witnesses later recalled him screaming for help. He bled out in the street and died.

A taxi driver parked nearby jotted down the number on the motorcycle’s license plate. Within a few hours, police arrested Dionysis Liakopoulos and Christos Stergiopoulos. During home raids, the police discovered Golden Dawn pamphlets and a cache of weapons: knives, batons and other banned items. Liakopoulos and Stergiopoulos confessed to the crime, and the following year the pair was later convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Both have denied any links to Golden Dawn.

The government did not act in response to the party’s violence until September 2013, when a party member killed a Greek rapper known for his anti-fascist lyrics. Golden Dawn member Giorgos Roupakias stabbed to death 34-year-old musician Pavlos Fyssas, prompting a string of arrests and charges that eventually targeted 69 members in a trial that is ongoing today. Although that trial is separate from the Luqman case, both Liakopoulos and Stergiopoulos are defendants, along with much of Golden Dawn’s leadership.

Golden Dawn’s leadership denied allegations that the Fyssas attack was planned, but party chief Nikolaos Michaloliakos eventually accepted the “political responsibility” for the slaying during a radio interview in 2015, although the party has consistently maintained that the attack was not planned and that the party bears no criminal liability.

But former party members have dismissed Michaloliakos’s claim that the attack was not coordinated. Christos Rigas served on Golden Dawn’s central political committee for several years and ran a failed bid for parliament with the party. Now the leader of the Popular Greek Patriotic Union (LEPEN), Rigas was accused of two mob-related murders in 2008, and he later built a reputation as a hard-line party enforcer in Agios Panteleimonas, the flash point area for far-right violence during the height of Golden Dawn’s pogroms.

Rigas, who quit the party in May 2015, scoffed at his former leader’s assertion. “Every decision was made by the leader [Michaloliakos] and a closed group of 10 to fifteen people who surrounded him,” he told OpenCanada. “The central committee was just there to clap for him. It was just for show.”

At the time of publication, Golden Dawn had not replied to OpenCanada’s request for a comment.

More than six years after Shahzad’s death, on the morning of May 6, the first day of Ramadan, Khadam arrived late to the final hearing for Liakopoulos and Stergiopoulos’s appeal to overturn their life sentences. He stepped out of a cab and made his way to the entrance. A handful of television cameramen followed closely behind as he walked past a group of anti-fascist activists rallying outside the courthouse.

In the building, the courtroom was already full. Dozens of people who gathered to support Khadam and his family waited in the hallway as the defence and the prosecution delivered their final statements inside. The judges dispersed to deliberate, and the audience reassembled shortly after noon.

Before reading the verdict, the lead judge warned the crowd to maintain calm. In a raised box angled perpendicular to the gallery, Liakopoulos and Stergiopoulos lifted their hands to mask their faces. By a vote of six to one, the court upheld the original convictions but had reduced the sentences. Altogether, for murder, a crime with racist intent, and possession and use of banned weapons, the new sentence totaled 21 years and six months, a reduction from the original life sentence. The judges based that decision on “mitigating factors,” namely good behaviour in prison.

Although the court did not link the killers’ actions to Golden Dawn, the presiding judge said the pair “had been determined to find a foreign national … and show him that he was not welcome here.”

Suddenly a group of anti-fascists sprang to their feet and hurled water bottles at Stergiopoulos and Liakopoulos. “Fascist scum,” they chanted. “You’ll be hanged.”

Riot police flooded the courtroom and sought to arrest the protestors, but Magda Fyssas, the mother of slain rapper Pavlos Fyssas, stepped between them. “You won’t be arresting anyone,” she warned.

The incident dissipated, protesters went outside, and the news crews gathered. Thanasis Kampagiannis, one of the civil suit lawyers in both the Luqman and Golden Dawn trials, addressed the reporters, insisting that reducing the sentence based on “mitigating factors,” such as good behaviour in prison, “sends the wrong message and is inconsistent with the initial decision that the murder was premeditated and with racist intent.”

That verdict prompted fears about what lies in store for the Golden Dawn trial, expected to conclude later this year or in 2020. And although Golden Dawn lost two European Parliament seats during the May 26 European elections, the party’s support hovers around roughly the same percentage that secured its place as the third largest party in the Greek parliament in September 2015 elections. More worrisome still, Golden Dawn secured 13.3 percent of the vote among Greeks aged 17 to 24 during the European vote.

And as the Golden Dawn trial drags on, hate crimes have continued to rise. Save for a surge in 2015, the number of hate crimes had slumped following Fyssas’s murder. But such attacks were on the rise again by 2017, and during 2018, the RVRN documented a 14-percent increase when compared to the previous year.

The Luqman family appreciates the “unbelievable support” they found among Greek lawyers, activists and civil society groups throughout the trial and appeals process, Khadam said. But the grieving father now tells young Pakistanis not to travel to Europe for work, urging them not to “put [their lives] in danger or cause pain for [their] parents.”

Pointing to the wave of far-right violence — more than 988 incidents of racist violence were recorded by the RVRN between 2012 and 2018 — he urged other European and North American countries to nip the far-right resurgence in the bud. “They are a danger for humanity, not only Europe, not only Greece,” he said. “Across the whole civilized world they cause trouble.”

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