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Greek far-right crackdown followed violence spike

Tuesday - 10/1/2013, 10:02am  ET

Leader of the extreme far-right Golden Dawn party Nikos Michaloliakos, center, is escorted by anti-terror police as he exits Greek Police headquarters, in Athens, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013. Police arrested the leader of Greece's extreme-right Golden Dawn party and other top members on Saturday, in an escalation of a government crackdown after a fatal stabbing allegedly committed by a supporter. It is the first time since 1974 that sitting members of Parliament have been arrested. (AP Photo/Fosphotos/Angeliki Panagiotou)

DEREK GATOPOULOS
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- Before stepping out of his house, Asif Ali gives his route careful consideration. The 28-year-old builder from Pakistan blames far-right street gangs for three attacks he suffered near his home in a poor area of Athens where a recent killing triggered Greece's crackdown on the Nazi-inspired Golden Dawn party.

Ali says he was beaten unconscious by a group of men dressed in black, attacked months later by a gang on motorcycles and assaulted again last December when three men boarded the bus he was taking to a construction site and broke his nose.

"I don't want to feel afraid but I do," he said. "I used to go for coffee and stay out late. Now I think it over 10 times before I go somewhere."

Greek authorities arrested Golden Dawn's leadership this weekend after the slaying of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas -- allegedly by a party volunteer in front of a crowd. Doctors, activists and victims greeted the news with relief but argued authorities should have acted much earlier, saying the killing was the culmination of a months-long increase in the brutality and brazenness of attacks by extreme right street gangs.

Not far from Ali's home in Athens' Nikea district, Dr. Panagiotis Papanikolaou mans a busy public hospital ward. He has treated victims of far-right violence, dating back to a 1998 attack on a left-wing student that left him with severe brain injuries. For months, he has warned about a spike in the level of violence used in racist attacks, as well as about the targets expanding more recently from immigrants to also include Greeks. He has not compiled numbers of his observations, but he has been an eyewitness to the evolution of the crimes.

"We've seen cases of cranial and facial injuries, knife wounds and laceration injuries made by screwdrivers," said Papanikolaou, a senior consultant neurosurgeon at Nikea General Hospital. "I think it's just luck that we haven't had any deaths. Blows powerful enough to crack someone's skull show an intention to kill.

"These gangs have evolved after 'practicing' on defenseless people -- immigrants -- for two or three years. And now they attack more openly and also target activists and labor campaigners."

Mostly in Athens, about 300 serious assaults by far-right gangs have been recorded in Greece in the past two years -- equivalent to three per week, according to a group created to monitor hate crimes. The Racist Violence Recording Network says nearly all involve multiple attackers, with about half of the cases resulting in serious injuries such as stab wounds or broken bones.

The network, which includes Amnesty International and the U.N. refugee agency, says the number of attacks has remained roughly stable since it first started operating in 2011, but that the gangs are getting more violent are moving from back alleys to busy neighborhood streets.

"The level of violence definitely increased. There are more incidents recently that could be seen as having murderous intent," said coordinator Eleni Takou. "There has been a definite pattern: Gangs patrol the streets, sometimes with dogs. They usually wear black or military clothing and carry some kind of weaponry -- clubs, baseball bats, knives. In other words, the attacks are not spontaneous."

More recent targets, she said, include Greek gays and left-wing activists.

Golden Dawn, which denies any involvement in the attacks, saw a surge in support amid public anger at the country's economic crisis and the highest levels of illegal immigration in Europe.

The group transformed from a once marginal organization with a few thousand supporters to a party represented in parliament with popularity ratings reaching as high as 12 percent in June. Yet it took the Sept. 18 killing of Fyssas to trigger a high-level investigation into its activities that culminated in a rapid series of arrests over the weekend of 20 Golden Dawn members including its leader and five other lawmakers.

Government officials said Fyssas' killing served as a "catalyst" to crack down on Golden Dawn, but that the heart of the investigation was a growing body of evidence against the group. Some Greeks are skeptical, saying that only the death of a native-born Greek caused the government to pay attention.

"It took a murder -- and indeed the murder of a Greek man -- for an entire society and for the state to show sensitivity," conservative lawmaker Aris Spiliotopoulos told private Skai television.

"What seems to be an obvious course of action should have happened years ago. I cannot understand why Golden Dawn was on multiple occasions allowed to participate in elections, when the party's charter was well known and it should have been classified as a neo-Nazi organization from the start."

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