THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — A court in northern Greece convicted four men identified as members of the far-right Golden Dawn party late Tuesday after being arrested carrying knives, pepper spray, and collapsible metal batons, as a probe into the political party's allegedly illegal activities widened.
Court in Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city, convicted the men aged 20 to 39 on public disturbance offenses and illegal weapons possession changes, handing them suspended sentences of between six and 10 months.
The government has vowed to crack down on the group it has described as a neo-Nazi organization, after the murder last week of Pavlos Fyssas, a 34-year-old rap singer stabbed outside a cafe by a man who later identified himself as being involved in the group. The party vehemently denies any involvement.
Golden Dawn, which won nearly 7 percent of the vote in national elections last year, has denied involvement in the killing as well as frequent allegations of being behind brutal street attacks, mostly against dark-skinned immigrants.
Investigations have extended to the police, which have been accused in the past of turning a blind eye to Golden Dawn violence and of mistreating immigrants. Internal affairs officers raided one police station Tuesday, investigating allegations that some policemen were involved in extorting money from immigrants selling contraband cigarettes.
Authorities said a 45-year-old suspended police officer was arrested late Tuesday after police searched the Golden Dawn offices in the western town of Agrinio, where there found wooden bats and shotgun cartridges. The officer was the former police bodyguard of a Golden Dawn lawmaker.
In Athens, Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias said he had sent additional evidence of alleged attacks allegedly carried out by members or supporters of the extreme right-wing party to the country's Supreme Court prosecutor.
The probe was widened a day after the government replaced five senior police officers "to ensure the absolute objectivity" of the investigation into Golden Dawn. Dendias, speaking after his meeting with President Karolos Papoulias, stressed that the officers are not suspected of any involvement themselves.
Greece's main police union criticized the move, saying the replacements were blackening the name of the police in general, and the replaced officers in particular.
"The damage caused by this in the conscience of citizens is great and is not undone by the police leadership's assurances that the transfers have nothing to do with the tragic recent events," the union said.
Dendias insisted the police should not be blamed for recent events. The force, he said, "is fulfilling its duty, which is to protect life, property and the freedom of Greek citizens, and ... the overwhelming majority of the women and men of the Greek Police are completely dedicated to their duty."
Becatoros reported from Athens, Greece.