Greece's neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn was branded a criminal organisation Wednesday, its leaders facing heavy sentences in one of the most important trials in the country's political history.
The judgement came as police and anti-fascist demonstrators clashed outside the courthouse, on the sidelines of a large protest of some 15,000 people.
Reading out the verdict in a trial that took place over five years, presiding judge Maria Lepenioti said Golden Dawn founder and leader Nikos Michaloliakos and other senior members were guilty of running a criminal organisation.
Among those convicted is independent Eurodeputy Yiannis Lagos, who defected from the party last year; the party's former spokesman Ilias Kassidiaris; and a dozen other senior party members elected to parliament in 2012 at the height of Golden Dawn's influence.
None of the party's senior members were present in court.
Michaloliakos and other senior cadres convicted on the criminal organisation charge face jail sentences of between five and 15 years.
The sentences are to be announced in separate hearings.
The crowd had started gathering two hours before the verdicts were handed down in response a call from the anti-fascist movement, trade unions and parties on the left.
"The people want the Nazis in jail", read some placards.
Hundreds of police were deployed at the courthouse, a few kilometres from the historic centre of the capital, barring the entrance with police vans.
- 'You succeeded' -
The prosecutions were sparked by the late-night murder of 34-year-old anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas in September 2013. He was chased down by a mob of Golden Dawn thugs and stabbed to death in front of a cafe in the western Athens suburb of Keratsini.
"Pavlos, you succeeded," the rapper's mother Magda shouted outside the courthouse after the verdict was announced, her hands raised in triumph. She had attended most of the hearings 453 sessions.
The killer, former truck driver Yiorgos Roupakias, confessed, but the attack sparked outrage and the charges that Golden Dawn was a paramilitary-style organisation that used beatings, intimidation and murder as tactics -- all with the knowledge of senior party members.
Also convicted on Wednesday, Roupakias faces a life sentence.
Main opposition leader Alexis Tsipras earlier on Wednesday had called for the conviction of a group that had "poisoned society with hatred".
There was uproar last year when chief prosecutor Adamantia Economou called for the acquittal of the party leaders on the basis that the existence of a criminal organisation had not been proven.
- Heavy sentences? -
In total, 68 members of the party were on trial, including Michaloliakos and more than a dozen other former MPs like him who were elected in 2012 as the openly xenophobic group capitalised on discontent over joblessness and migration.
As well as delivering a verdict in the murder trial for Fyssas and the trial of senior leaders of Golden Dawn, the court handed down judgements for two other assault cases involving Golden Dawn members, among other convictions.
An Egyptian fisherman was left with broken teeth and head injuries after being beaten with clubs and metal bars in June 2012 as he slept.
Just over a year later, Communists putting up posters were attacked with nail-studded clubs.
Golden Dawn was at its political peak at the time of Fyssas's murder, having won 18 seats in the 300-seat parliament in 2012 amid anger over a financial crisis in Greece that discredited mainstream political parties.
Three years later, it also sent three deputies to the European parliament in another strong showing.
But the investigation took its toll, causing a number of senior members to defect. In the last election in 2019, the party failed to win a single seat.