ATHENS -- Greek police Saturday arrested the leader of the country’s far-right Golden Dawn party as part of a major crackdown on the group triggered by the fatal stabbing last week of a young anti-fascist rapper, allegedly by a Golden Dawn sympathizer.
Party leader Nikos Michaloliakos was arrested at his home in an early-morning police operation expected to continue throughout the day, with arrest warrants out on 35 other party members and elected representatives in the Greek parliament, police said.
Michaloliakos’ arrest, on suspicion of heading a "criminal organization," was the first of a political leader since democracy was restored here after the country's brutal 1967-74 military dictatorship.
Ilias Kassidiaris, the party’s spokesman who fled arrest last year after punching a communist member of parliament during a televised debate, was also arrested in the unprecedented roundup.
"None of them showed any resistance,” said Loukas Krikos, a senior police official involved in the operation. “They are being held in police headquarters and will be charged by a prosecutor within the day."
Since the party’s election to parliament last year -- it won a stunning 7% of the vote and 18 seats in the nation’s 300-member legislature -- pundits and politicians have been divided over its presence on the country’s political landscape.
Leftist parties long accused the conservative-led government of displaying "excessive tolerance" of the group and its thuggish tactics, including attacks on immigrants, homosexuals and the disabled.
But since the fatal Sept. 18 stabbing of Pavlos Fyssas, the 34-year-old hip-hop artist known by the stage name Killah P., authorities have launched an all-out offensive against Golden Dawn, moving to outlaw it.
A 45-year-old part-time fish trader linked to the group has been arrested and charged in connection with Fyssas' stabbing.
Both Michaloliakos and Kassidiaris face life sentences if found guilty, and emergency legislation drafted by the justice minister, due to be debated in parliament Monday, could see the party stripped of state campaign funding, officials said.
Golden Dawn has vowed to use "all legal means at its disposal" to defend itself from criminal prosecution, including the resignation of all its 18 deputies in parliament, a move that could spark early elections.