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Mass convictions break Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn movement

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This week, as an Athens court prepared to announce verdicts on dozens of activists linked to the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn movement, more than 10,000 people gathered outside waving banners and chanting anti-fascist slogans.

The proceedings that concluded on Wednesday — viewed as Greece’s most important criminal trial in decades — resulted in the conviction of Nikos Michaloliakos, Golden Dawn leader, and six associates for running “a criminal organisation disguised as a political party”. A further 11 former lawmakers and more than 30 party members and supporters were also found guilty.

“It was an enormous feeling of relief and satisfaction when the guilty verdicts came in,” said Alexia Georgiou, a social worker who joined the anti-fascist protest.

The convictions spell the end for a party that went from the political fringes to the third-largest group in the Greek parliament but failed to rein in its activist wing.

“[The court case] was the culmination of a considerable amount of social mobilisation and pressure on the state to do what it hadn’t done in a decade and crack down on Golden Dawn,” said Antonis Ellinas, a politics professor at University of Cyprus and author of a book on the party.

Founded in 1985 by Mr Michaloliakos, a youth leader of a pro-junta party during Greece’s military dictatorship in the 1970s, Golden Dawn built a reputation for extreme violence in street fights with young leftwingers.

It emerged as an alternative to traditional rightwing parties as Greece’s economic crisis gathered pace and unemployment soared to 28 per cent in 2012. The party’s social welfare branch made regular food distributions and offered free medical consultations. But underlining its nativism, these were “only for Greek citizens”.

Foteini Vassilopoulou, a retired teacher, used to rely on a member of the party’s youth wing to accompany her to the bank when she went to withdraw her pension.

“Purse-snatching was a problem, the neighbourhood was filling up with immigrants and older residents felt insecure,” the 82-year-old said. “A neighbour told me about Golden Dawn. I didn’t grasp at the time that they had a violent side.”

The party entered parliament in 2012 at the height of Greece’s economic crisis. It won 6.9 per cent of the vote and 18 seats. In 2015, with a similar percentage of the vote, it became the third-largest party in parliament.

Golden Dawn’s youth wing, wearing their trademark black T-shirts with a swastika-like symbol and holding flaming torches, would stand guard at party rallies as Mr Michaloliakos ranted against the country’s harsh bailout deal and migrants “stealing” jobs.

Later, the same young people, armed with knives and clubs, would attack leftwing activists and immigrants, claiming they were keeping residents of low-income districts safe from “criminals and communists”. Few arrests were made and ex-party members admitted they co-operated informally with police.

Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos told the court: “I never urged anyone to carry out acts of violence, there was no criminal organisation. It’s all a pack of lies,” © Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP

As their influence grew, aides to the then centre-right prime minister Antonis Samaras courted some of its MPs, seeing Golden Dawn as a potential counterweight to the surging popularity of the leftwing Syriza party.

Dimitris Kousouris, a professor at Vienna university and former student activist who testified at the trial, said he spent a week in intensive care in 1998 after being attacked by a group from Golden Dawn. “They were protected by the police . . . Seven years passed before my attacker was arrested after a chance identification,” he said. His assailant was among the defendants in the trial.

The events that led to this week’s mass convictions can be traced back to the fatal stabbing of a popular rapper in a street fight in 2013. The death of Pavlos Fyssas, known as Killah P, prompted the arrest of Golden Dawn’s parliamentary group and an investigation that resulted in a trial that lasted more than five years.

The prosecutor examined scores of incidents involving Golden Dawn to build a case that traced them back to a chain of command linked to the party’s central organisation.

“I never urged anyone to carry out acts of violence, there was no criminal organisation. It’s all a pack of lies,” Mr Micholaliakos told the court.

Following their convictions, the seven leaders of Golden Dawn face prison terms of 10-15 years for running a criminal organisation, while the remaining defendants face 5-10 years for belonging to the gang. Sentencing is due to take place on Monday.

Golden Dawn lost all of its MPs in 2019 after failing to reach the 3 per cent of the vote threshold to enter parliament. Aris Hatzis, a law professor at Athens University, said the party’s failure to adapt to normal parliamentary politics brought about its demise.

But Prof Hatzis also predicted that a successor would emerge. “There’s still plenty of demand for rightwing populist parties across Europe. A revised Greek version, non-violent, not openly racist, and less stridently nationalist, could well capitalise on the Golden Dawn experience,” he said.

In an opinion poll published on Friday, 76 per cent of respondents believed that fascism was still a threat in Greece and 43 per cent that a new far-right party would contest the next election.

 



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Regulators close ranks on crypto

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Regulators are continuing to step up their scrutiny of cryptocurrencies, with central banks and South Korea’s tax authorities demonstrating fresh concerns.

In a report published on Wednesday, the Bank for International Settlements, the global body for central banks, argues that digital tokens such as bitcoin have few redeeming features and “work against the public good”. It also dismissed stablecoins — a link between crypto and conventional assets — as an “appendage” to traditional money.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the BIS did endorse the development of digital currencies backed by central banks, saying they could be a tool to achieve greater financial inclusion and lower the high costs of payments. “Central bank digital currencies . . . offer in digital form the unique advantages of central bank money: settlement finality, liquidity and integrity,” it said.

In contrast, bitcoin wasted energy and cryptocurrencies were “speculative assets rather than money, and in many cases are used to facilitate money laundering, ransomware attacks and other financial crimes”.

South Korea has acted against the financial crime of tax evasion, with more than Won53bn ($47m) of bitcoin, ethereum and other cryptoassets confiscated from 12,000 people. Officials said it was the largest “cryptocurrency seizure for back taxes in Korean history” and noted that local exchanges had allegedly been used to conceal assets because they did not collect the resident registration numbers of account holders. Many of South Korea’s 60 crypto exchanges are battling to meet regulatory conditions to operate beyond September.

This week’s #techAsia newsletter asks whether the death knell is being sounded for cryptocurrencies. That could be the case in China, where it is scaling up tests of its official digital renminbi, and appears serious about stamping out the crypto industry on its soil. Bitcoin fell below $30,000 on Tuesday following the latest regulatory crackdown, but it has recovered to be worth more than $34,000 today.

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China bolsters ties with Myanmar junta despite international condemnation

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Trade and diplomatic ties between Myanmar and China are normalising in the face of intense domestic opposition and international condemnation of the military junta that seized power in February.

Beijing has strengthened relations with Myanmar’s military leaders despite a series of violent attacks against Chinese business interests in the country after Aung San Suu Kyi’s government was toppled.

Yun Sun, an expert on Myanmar-China relations with the Stimson Center, a US think-tank, said Beijing had already made a “fundamental assessment” that Myanmar was moving into another prolonged period of military rule.

“I think the Chinese can see that this military coup is successful and is here to stay,” she added.

The resumption of state-level engagements and economic activity signals that Myanmar is reverting to its traditional economic reliance on China. The country has used its larger neighbour as a buffer against international sanctions and divestment by foreign investors, who have announced plans to quit the country or shelved projects.

Since the coup, 875 people have been killed by the junta and 6,242 arrested, according to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (Burma), a human rights group. The country’s economy and public services were severely disrupted by mass protests in the three months that followed the putsch, and have only partially recovered.

The resumption of bilateral trade will fuel the widespread suspicion among anti-coup resistance groups that China was prepared to support the new military regime.

The cumulative value of China’s imports from Myanmar for the first five months of the year was $3.38bn, up from $2.43bn in 2020 and $2.56bn in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic, according to official Chinese customs data.

Exports to Myanmar for the same period have not recovered to the same extent, however. By the end of May, goods valued at $4.28bn had been shipped to Myanmar, compared with $4.56bn and $4.79bn in the two previous years.

In a further sign of strengthening diplomatic relations, Chen Hai, China’s ambassador to Myanmar, met coup leader and military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw, the capital, in June. In a subsequent statement, Chen referred to Min Aung Hlaing as the leader of Myanmar.

China was among the countries that abstained in a UN general assembly vote last week calling on the international community to halt the flow of arms to Myanmar and release Aung San Suu Kyi and other political detainees. 

Beijing had good relations with the government of the deposed leader, who is in detention facing multiple criminal charges. However, it has refrained from criticising the military, fanning anger among the mass protest movement that sprang up after the coup. 

Beyond being Myanmar’s biggest trading partner, China also has strategic infrastructure investments in the country, including energy pipelines that give Beijing a critical link to the Indian Ocean.

James Char, a Myanmar expert at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said many people in Myanmar still blamed the Chinese government and business interests for complicity in supporting the military’s decades of rule before the transition to democracy.

“The Chinese, themselves, are very clear about [public sentiment in Myanmar],” Char said.

Attacks on China-linked businesses in the wake of the coup culminated in an explosion at a Chinese-backed textile factory west of Yangon on June 11, according to reports from local Myanmar media, as well as junta-controlled information services and Chinese state media.

Beijing’s wariness of inflaming Myanmar protesters would probably slow Chinese direct investments and the resumption of planned larger-scale developments that formed part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, analysts said.

Additional reporting by Sherry Fei Ju in Beijing



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Australia calls Great Barrier Reef warning politically motivated

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Australia has labelled a draft decision by the UN’s World Heritage Committee to include the Great Barrier Reef on its “in danger” list as politically motivated.

The committee, which is chaired by Tian Xuejun, China’s vice-minister for education, and selects Unesco World Heritage sites, proposed adding the world’s largest collection of coral reefs to the danger list because of the damaging impact of climate change and coastal development.

The designation could ultimately lead to the reef losing its World Heritage status, although officials said listing was intended to prompt emergency action to safeguard a living structure that stretches 2,300km along Australia’s eastern coast.

But Sussan Ley, Australia’s environment minister, said the government had been “blindsided” by the committee’s finding and alleged there was a lack of consultation and transparency. She added that Canberra would challenge the draft decision.

“When procedures are not followed, when the process is turned on its head five minutes before the draft decision is due to be published, when the assurances my officials received and indeed I did have been upended, what else can you conclude but that it is politics?” she said.

That the World Heritage Committee is chaired by a senior Chinese official has stoked suspicions in Canberra that it had been singled out over its diplomatic and trade clash with Beijing.

China-Australia relations have soured following Canberra’s call last year for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 and Beijing’s imposition of tariffs on Australian wine and barley imports.

Ley said she and Marise Payne, Australia’s foreign minister, had already spoken with Audrey Azoulay, Unesco director-general, to complain about the draft decision.

But scientists downplayed the suggestion that the “in danger” listing was politically motivated. Three mass bleaching events in five years demonstrated the need for the government to do more to tackle climate change, they said.

“I’m seeing some press coverage saying this is all a plot by China not to buy wine, lobsters and to screw the Barrier Reef. I think that’s pretty far-fetched given that the draft decision released overnight will be voted on by 21 countries,” said Terry Hughes, professor of marine biology at James Cook University.

The controversy will heap further international pressure on Canberra, which has been pressed by the US, UK and others to commit to a national target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

In a draft decision due to be voted on next month, the committee urged Canberra to “provide clear commitments to address threats from climate change, in conformity with the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, and allow to meet water quality targets faster”.

It noted the loss of almost one-third of shallow-water coral cover following a “bleaching” event in 2016 — a process linked to warmer than normal water that can lead to a mass die-off of coral.

The row over the “in danger” listing occurred at a difficult time for Australia’s conservative coalition, which is embroiled in internal squabbling over climate policies.

On Monday, Barnaby Joyce, a climate sceptic and supporter of coal mining, ousted Michael McCormack to become leader of the National party, the junior coalition partner to the Liberal party, and Australia’s deputy prime minister. Joyce is expected to oppose any move to commit to net zero by 2050.

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