ATHENS, Greece -- A Greek court sentenced the leadership of the extreme-right Golden Dawn party to 13 years in prison Wednesday, imposing the near-maximum penalty for running a criminal organization blamed for numerous violent hate crimes.
Presiding judge Maria Lepenioti read out the 13-year sentences against party leader Nikos Michaloliakos and five other former lawmakers. A seventh leading party member received 10 years.
The landmark ruling follows a five-year trial of dozens of top officials, members and supporters of Golden Dawn, an organization founded as a neo-Nazi group in the 1980s that rose to become Greece’s third-largest political party during most of the country's 2010-2018 financial crisis.
“Today’s sentencing of the neo-Nazi organization demonstrates the resilience of our democracy and the rule of law,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a tweet Wednesday evening. “This verdict marks the end of a traumatic period in Greece’s history. Together we move forward with this chapter closed.”
Eleven other former parliament members were sentenced to between five and seven years for membership of a criminal organization, while a party associate was given a life sentence for the murder of Greek rap singer Pavlos Fyssas in a 2013 attack that triggered the crackdown against Golden Dawn.
The former lawmakers were not in court when the sentences were read out.
The court will now hear final arguments for probation considerations, after which those whose sentences are not suspended will be arrested unless they turn themselves in to authorities.
Golden Dawn was blamed for orchestrating multiple attacks, mostly in Athens, against immigrants and left-wing activists, many resulting in serious injury.
The Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovic, said the convictions and sentencing “were long-awaited."
“Those advocating for and involved directly or indirectly in acts of racist violence enjoyed impunity for too long,” she said. “These decisions are not final and we have to let the judicial process go on (regarding sentencing), but they already represent an important step."
A total of 57 party members and associates were convicted on Oct. 7, mostly for involvement in carrying out or planning violent attacks.
During the weeklong sentencing hearings, lawyers for the defense argued that court had failed to demonstrate any clear link between the attacks and the activities of the party leadership.
The party was represented in Greece's parliament between 2012 and 2019, having won the required number of votes in four separate general elections.
Ioannis Lagos, a former Golden Dawn lawmaker who was sentenced Wednesday to 13 years in prison, is currently a member of the European Parliament and traveled to Athens this week to attend the sentencing hearings. He launched an unsuccessful legal challenge to have the panel of three judges trying the case replaced on grounds of alleged bias and political interference.
In a post on social media, Lagos, who has returned to Brussels, said he is planning to take his challenge to a European court.
Human rights groups and immigrant associations have praised the conviction of Golden Dawn's leadership.
“Survivors of these crimes have a right to see justice done and this goes a long way to showing that the state will not tolerate such vicious attacks,” Eva Cosse at Human Rights Watch told The Associated Press.
“Racist and xenophobic violence is intended to send a hateful message, and it’s the prosecutor’s role to send an equally powerful counter-message, and for the court to apply an appropriate sentence that reflects the gravity of the crime.”
Fanis Karabatsakis in Athens contributed.