Ahead of the trial of Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party, Brunel Law School senior lecturer Dr Dimitrios Giannoulopoulos discusses the potential wide-ranging legal and political ramifications:
"The trial of Golden Dawn is set to start on April 20. It is now just over ten years since the trials of the terrorist organisation ‘November 17’ shook Greek society to the bone, and yet the trial of Golden Dawn is an entirely new – judicial – beast. The organisation of the trial presents the Ministry of Justice with immense practical challenges, yet much more disconcerting are the possible repercussions at the socio-political level, not just in Greece but also in Europe, at a time when the threat from far-right wing parties seems increasingly menacing.
"Sixty-nine defendants will sit in the dock of the Court of Appeal (three member division), which has special jurisdiction to act as a court of first instance with regards to offences of membership in a criminal organisation. More than a hundred lawyers are expected to act for the defence, while several dozen others are likely to be appointed as ‘civil parties’, to represent the interests of the ‘victims’ in the process (as is standard practice in Greece). The number of witnesses that will be called by the prosecution alone is estimated around 130. The trial is expected to last around 18 months, and its location – a specially modified room within the largest prison in Greece, the Korydallos Prison in Piraeus – has already generated substantial controversy, with many MPs, local representatives and residents expressing strong opposition, as they fear that the trial will bring life in the local community to a standstill.
"The trial process itself will present the participants with highly complex questions relating to the application of some obscure criminal law concepts and the administration of evidence, and possibly the legality of some of the investigatory methods used (questions have already arisen at the pre-trial stage, for example as to the legality of some of the arrests, the questioning of the suspects and the interception of telephone communications of the defendants). Significant concerns have been expressed as to the legal basis for the main charge, which is ‘membership in, or leadership of, the criminal organisation’ of Golden Dawn (punished by article 187 of the Greek Criminal Code with a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment – for membership in the organisation – and a sentence of at least 10 years imprisonment, for leadership of the organisation). The judicial council committing to trial these 69 members of the Golden Dawn, including all its MPs who were sitting in the previous Parliament, decided that the charge should stand, but only with a 2-1 majority ruling. The dissenting member of the council opined that the investigation should have revealed a financial gain as an objective of the activity undertaken by the criminal organisation, and that such financial gain had not been established. Article 187 of the Greek Criminal Code does not specify such a requirement, but the dissenting opinion drew upon an international convention ratified by Greece.
"Besides the technical and strictly legal challenges faced by the court, the stakes for the country could hardly be higher. Golden Dawn is now the third biggest political party in Greece. 13 of its current 17 MPs were re-elected in the January elections though they were running their campaigns from inside the Korydallos prison. The party is beginning to establish itself as an important political force, and conviction of its leadership in court will put it in limbo. This presents a significant risk of further polarisation of public opinion, especially at a time when the new Government of the Left is trying hard to deliver on its electoral promises of a new economic deal for Greece within Europe, and Europe seems more fixed than ever before on maintaining the status quo. A possible failure to deliver on these promises, coupled with a risk-filled trial going on for many months, will be an explosive mix, and it can only be hoped it will be dealt with care. Procedural fairness is the only certain safety net, and the many months of judicial investigations, culminating in hundreds of pages of legal indictment, are promising that no effort will be spared in trying to achieve that."
A version of this article is published in the Solicitors Journal here.