ATHENS — The leader and other top officials of Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party were arrested Saturday on suspicion of forming a criminal organization, the first such arrests since democracy was restored here in 1974.
In all, 19 lawmakers, members and collaborators of the neo-Nazi party were detained and dozens more arrests were expected, police said.
The sweep marked a sharp escalation in the government's drive to defang Golden Dawn after a party sympathizer confessed to fatally stabbing an anti-racist musician Sept. 18.
Police said Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos was arrested at his home. At least two pistols, a hunting rifle and more than $50,000 in cash were confiscated from the home of the party leader, whom members frequently addressed as "Fuehrer."
Authorities also apprehended party spokesman Ilias Kassidiaris and a local party chief suspected of authorizing the attack on the 34-year-old hip-hop artist known as Killah P.
"None of them showed any resistance," Loukas Krikos, a senior police official involved in the operation, said of the arrests. "They are being held in police headquarters and will be charged by a prosecutor within the day."
Michaloliakos and other senior party officials could face life sentences if convicted of complicity in a string of crimes, including incitement of murder and violent racist and political attacks.
Leaders of Golden Dawn, which uses a warped swastika as its emblem, have made no secret of their adoration of Adolf Hitler and his racist policies. Even so, its support has soared in recent years, tapping into the anger and pain caused by an extreme economic recession that has left 1.4 million Greeks jobless and seen incomes plummet by at least 25%.
The party has 18 members in Parliament, all of whom would retain their seats unless convicted.
Officials said a nationwide police hunt was underway in a bid to round up at least 30 additional suspects, including three state security officials accused of aiding and abetting the party in beating immigrants and running protection rackets.
Two senior police chiefs and a high-ranking secret service official were dismissed last week amid claims that police were themselves entwined with Golden Dawn operations.
On Saturday, Golden Dawn lawmaker Nikos Michas surrendered himself to authorities, sending hundreds of die-hard supporters outside the police headquarters in central Athens, waving Greek flags and shouting slogans against the government.
"This isn't a crackdown," said Artemis Mattheopoulos, a Golden Dawn lawmaker, "it is a contract killing of a political party and we will not tolerate it."
Surveys conducted before the stabbing showed the once-negligible fringe force representing the third-largest political faction in the country, with its sharp nationalistic and anti-austerity rhetoric polling more than 15% of the vote.
Even so, pundits and politicians have long been divided over the strength of the party's presence on the political landscape. Leftist parties have repeatedly accused the conservative-led government of displaying "excessive tolerance" of the group and its thuggish tactics, including attacks on immigrants, homosexuals and the handicapped.
Since the fatal stabbing of Killah P, born Pavlos Fyssas, the government has moved to outlaw the party and strip it of about $1 million in state funding.
For Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, the grandson of a popular writer who committed suicide when Nazi forces hoisted a swastika flag on the Acropolis, that may be a tricky political maneuver, pundits said.
"There is no doubt that Saturday's arrests mark the start of the end of Golden Dawn," said George Kirtsos, a leading political analyst. "Still, Mr. Samaras and his government will ultimately have to address the social and economic problems that gave rise to it."
"If he doesn't," Kirtsos said, "then it is just a matter of time before another far-right party will be created, perhaps not as violent, but still feeding from the fallout of the recession."
Golden Dawn has vowed to use "all legal means at its disposal" to defend itself, including the resignation of all of its 18 Parliament members, a move that could spark early elections in about 15 regions across the country.
Carassava is a special correspondent.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times