Greek neo-Nazi party trial to begin April 20

Athens (AFP) - The trial of 72 people linked to Greece's neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party and accused of crimes including murder and participation in a criminal organization will begin April 20, a court source said Monday.

"The trial has been set for April 20," the source told AFP.

The trial, to be conducted by a panel of three judges, follows a 15-month investigation sparked by the fatal stabbing of a Greek rapper by a Golden Dawn supporter in September 2013.

The group was later also linked to the murder of a Pakistani immigrant and beatings of political opponents.

The defendants at the trial, set to take place in Athens' high security Korydallos prison, include party leader Nikos Michaloliakos and around a dozen Golden Dawn parliamentary lawmakers.

Most face charges of membership in a criminal organisation, a serious offence in Greece. Others are accused of murder, conspiracy to murder, possession of weapons and racist violence.

Some of the defendants, who include police officers, face sentences of up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Handpicked by ex-dictator George Papadopoulos to lead a far-right youth group after the junta fell, Michaloliakos went on to found Golden Dawn in the mid-1980s.

The openly xenophobic and anti-Semitic party was for years a semi-clandestine group on the fringes of Greek politics.

But in 2012 the party exploited widespread anger over immigration and austerity reforms prompted by Greece's financial crisis and won 18 seats in parliament.

Although its members had been known to patrol the streets, carrying out attacks on foreigners, the party rarely faced sanctions until the murder of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas.

Michaloliakos and a number of others were arrested, and a subsequent search of party members' homes uncovered firearms and other weapons, as well Nazi and fascist memorabilia.

Golden Dawn rejects the accusations as politically motivated and the group held on to its support base in January's general election.

It finished third in the election, winning 17 seats in the 300-member legislature.

The group picked up over 388,000 votes, down about 38,000 from the previous ballot in 2012, and most of the lawmakers who will face trial were re-elected.

Golden Dawn also grabbed third place in European Parliament elections in May 2014, naming three MEPs for the first time in its history.

The party follows a strict military-style regimen, and investigating magistrates say its structure emulates that of the Nazi party -- something Golden Dawn denies.

Its members conduct parades dressed in black shirts and camouflage trousers, and are required to stand to attention before higher-ranking members.

For many years Golden Dawn glorified Adolf Hitler in its party publications.

This rhetoric was later toned down as the party adjusted its message to better suit Greek voter concerns.

Even so, in a May 2012 interview Michaloliakos effectively denied the Holocaust, telling Greece's Mega channel: "There were no crematoria, it's a lie. Or gas chambers."