Far-right leader Nikos Michaloliakos charged with operating a criminal organisation that targets immigrants and opponents
Golden Dawn party leader Nikos Michaloliakos is escorted by masked police to an Athens court Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images
The head of Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party has appeared in court, in a highly anticipated defence of charges that he used the group to operate a criminal organisation that sowed terror on the streets of the country.
His hands cuffed, Nikos Michaloliakos was brought to Athens's court complex as followers cheered on the man accused of being the pre-eminent face of neo-Nazism in Europe.
"Blood, honour, Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn)," they screamed as the squat, grey-haired politician was led under armed guard into the building.
The first elected party chief to be arrested in Greece since the fall of military rule almost four decades ago, Michaloliakos is expected to adopt the same stance as five other Golden Dawn MPs also arrested on Saturday, arguing he is the victim of political persecution.
The 56-year-old mathematician is believed to have spent days combing through a 4,000-page dossier drawn up by a supreme court prosecutor outlining Golden Dawn's alleged crimes over the past 20 years.
Charges include founding a political force that subscribes to the principles of Nazi ideology and actively indulges in widespread violence, targeting immigrants, minorities and political opponents.
Three of the four MPs arrested alongside Michaloliakos were released on Wednesday pending trial. A fourth deputy, Yannis Lagos, was ordered to be kept in detention following charges that, like Michaloliakos, he was directly connected to the death of Greek hip-hop star Pavlos Fyssas on September 17 in a working class suburb of Athens.
Ilias Kasidiaris, the party's press officer, was freed on condition that he posted €50,000 (£42,000) in bail. All of the men were told they could not leave the country.
Opposition politicians and lawyers voiced fears that while executed with good intent, the charge sheet had been put together "overly hastily".
"This development shows that at least in the eyes of the court authorities the case was not substantiated enough," said Harris Ikonopoulos, the publisher of the left-leaning daily Eleftherotypia and a prominent lawyer. "It creates the perception that Greece is becoming a failed state where none of its institutions or the rule of law work."
Freed from custody, the Golden Dawn politicians showed their contempt for the media, shoving, kicking and spitting at photographers outside the Athens court. "Now you will see you disgusting people," one of the deputies, Ilias Panagiotaros, said. "You will only stop us with bullets."
The extremists have been held responsible for hundreds of assaults in the 16 months since they were elected with 18 MPs and 7% of the vote to the Athens parliament in June last year.
As the alleged mastermind of a criminal gang, Michaloliakos has also been linked to the murder of Fyssas, who rapped about the rise of racism in Greece.
The brutal stabbing, by a self-proclaimed member of Golden Dawn, spurred Antonis Samaras's coalition government to take what officials are now describing as "the huge risk" of launching the crackdown last weekend.
From the US, where he is on an official trip, Samaras vowed to eradicate the evil of neo-Nazism, saying there was "no place" for it in any state.