LONDON — The Greek parliament voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to strip six lawmakers from the Golden Dawn party of their immunity from prosecution as authorities continued cracking down on the neo-fascist group, which has been blamed for a spate of violent attacks on immigrants.
The Greek government has turned up its pressure on Golden Dawn since the fatal stabbing last month of an anti-racist rapper allegedly by a suspect with ties to the group. The party's leader and other senior members have been arrested, and the Greek press has been filled with stories of Golden Dawn's thuggish tactics, its newly unearthed caches of weapons and its infiltration of police ranks.
Although Greece's constitution forbids the outlawing of political parties, authorities have gone after Golden Dawn by having it declared an organized crime ring.
Similarly, Greek lawmakers are automatically granted immunity from prosecution, but that exemption can be lifted by a vote in parliament if there is suspicion of criminal activity.
Golden Dawn describes itself as nationalist, not fascist, and contends that it is being persecuted for its political beliefs. The group's invective toward immigrants and aggressive rhetoric against Athens' costly international bailouts have appealed to many Greeks hard-hit by the country's deep recession. More than 25% of Greek workers are unemployed, as are half of all young people.
"The thieves, crooks and those who destroyed the country and sold it off to foreign loan sharks are those who should stand trial," said Ilias Kasidiaris, a Golden Dawn spokesman and one of the lawmakers stripped of immunity from prosecution.
Kasidiaris gained notoriety last year when, on a nationally televised talk show, he leaned out of his seat and slapped a female politician across the face and flung a glass of water on another guest. He then fled the set and went into temporary hiding to avoid being charged with assault.
Golden Dawn's caucus in parliament abstained from Wednesday's vote removing their legal protection.
Since the Sept. 17 stabbing death of rap artist Pavlos Fyssas, the group's poll ratings have dropped. But it remains in third place behind the ruling conservatives and the radical-left opposition Syriza party.
Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos remains in jail as authorities investigate charges that the group ran a protection racket, smuggled weapons and incited or instigated attacks against immigrants and gays. Detectives have discovered Nazi memorabilia at the home of at least one Golden Dawn member; the group's emblem resembles a swastika, and adherents give each other Nazi-like salutes.
Its elevation from fringe group into political force has alarmed many sectors of Greek society, which have mounted large anti-fascist protests. Many Greeks criticize the government for having been too timid in dealing with Golden Dawn and allowing its intolerant rhetoric and alleged use of violence to go unchallenged.