By Karolina Tagaris
KORYDALLOS, Greece (Reuters) - The leaders of Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party refused to show up at court on Monday at the start of a landmark trial in which the elected politicians are accused of forming a criminal gang.
The trial was adjourned soon after starting. It will convene again on May 7 and is expected to drag on for months. If found guilty, the defendants face up to 20 years in prison.
Party leader Nikos Mihaloliakos and over a dozen top figures were arrested in 2013, weeks after the stabbing of anti-racism rapper Pavlos Fissas by a party supporter.
They have been charged based on evidence linking Golden Dawn with a string of attacks, including the stabbing of Fissas and the killing of an immigrant the following year. The politicians deny the charges.
Large numbers of witnesses, lawyers, journalists and dozens of police packed the rowdy courtroom inside the heavily guarded Korydallos prison, near Athens. Dressed in a cream-colored suit, Giorgos Roupakias, who confessed to the stabbing, was led in handcuffed.
But Mihaloliakos and the party's senior officials were absent and represented by their lawyers.
A total of 69 people will be tried, including all of the 18 lawmakers Golden Dawn had in the previous parliament, which was dissolved for a Jan. 25 snap election.
The killing of Fissas, who bled to death after being stabbed in the street, prompted protests across Greece, a shake-up of the police and a broad investigation of the party. Police found unlicensed weapons, Nazi flags and portraits of Adolf Hitler during searches of the homes of arrested party members.
But Golden Dawn, whose black-and-red emblem resembles a swastika, rejects the neo-Nazi label. It has strongly denied involvement in Fissas's killing. It says the defendants are victims of a political witch-hunt.
"Golden Dawn states unequivocally that it wants and expects the smooth conduct of a fair trial ... which will prove the an attempt to frame-up the movement of Greek nationalists at the behest of foreign power centers," the party said on its website.
Thousands of anti-fascism protesters rallied outside the high-security prison, which is home to Greece's most dangerous criminals, holding up banners which read "Pavlos is alive - crush the Nazis!" A march was also held by the party's supporters.
Despite accusations of brutality and violence, the party's appeal has remained largely intact. For years a little-known group, it courted voters angry at traditional parties and fearful of a recession-driven rise in crime to win 18 seats in parliament in 2012.
It won 17 seats in January's election, making Golden Dawn the joint third largest party in the assembly.
(Additional reporting by Alkis Konstantinidis and Angeliki Koutantou Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)