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Greek far-right lawmakers to make pleas against criminal charges on Tuesday

Leader of the extreme-right Golden Dawn party Nikolaos Mihaloliakos delivers a speech during a gathering in Athens February 2, 2013. REUTERS
Leader of the extreme-right Golden Dawn party Nikolaos Mihaloliakos delivers a speech during a gathering in Athens February 2, 2013. REUTERS

By Renee Maltezou

ATHENS (Reuters) - The leader of Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party and four more of its lawmakers will appear in court on Tuesday to enter pleas on charges of belonging to a criminal organization after being arrested following the killing of an anti-fascist rapper.

They spent nine hours with prosecutors overnight and were taken at 3:30 a.m. (0030 GMT) back to police headquarters where they will be held until they appear before an investigating magistrate on Tuesday.

The arrest of party leader Nikolaos Mihaloliakos, party spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris, four other lawmakers and 13 party members was the biggest mass detention of lawmakers since the end of Greece's military dictatorship in 1974.

The other suspects will appear in court to make their pleas on Wednesday, a court official said on condition of anonymity.

The fatal stabbing of 34-year-old Pavlos Fissas on September 17 stirred outrage and protests across Greece and led to an investigation into the party for evidence linking it to the attack and dozens more criminal offences.

Ιt has also prompted a shake-up of Greek police in light of evidence obtained by investigators indicating that Golden Dawn cells were operating within the force. Two police officers were arrested on Saturday in connection with the inquiry and several senior officers have been suspended or replaced.

Two days after the killing, the government passed onto the highest civilian court a file containing 32 cases of suspected crimes linked to members of Golden Dawn, including four knife attacks on immigrants, one of which was fatal.

Late on Saturday evening, the detainees were taken under high security to the prosecutors' office and charged officially on evidence linking the party with a string of attacks, including the stabbing of the rapper on September 17 and the killing of an immigrant earlier this year, court officials told Reuters.

The party has denied any connection with the killing and Mihaloliakos has warned that Golden Dawn may pull its lawmakers from parliament if the crackdown does not stop. That could touch off several by-elections.

Golden Dawn rose from obscurity to gain 18 seats in parliament last year on a virulently anti-immigrant agenda and is now Greece's third most popular party, according to opinion polls. Mihaloliakos is a Holocaust denier, party members have given Nazi-style salutes and their emblem resembles a swastika.

Greek members of parliament do not lose their political rights or seats unless there is a final court ruling against them. But the government has proposed a law that would block state funding for parties whose leaders or lawmakers are prosecuted for felonies.

One more Gold Dawn legislator turned himself in on Sunday. "Long live Golden Dawn!" MP Christos Pappas shouted as he entered the Athens police headquarters.

Greek newspapers hailed the arrests as a victory for democracy. "Golden Dawn's Holocaust," read the front page of the leftist Ethnos daily. "Democracy is knocking out the neo-Nazis," read To Vima.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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