ATHENS – Police on Thursday arrested two Greek men on suspicion of attacking a Cameroonian national and setting fire to his coffee bar in a central Athens neighbourhood that has become a flashpoint for racist violence.
The suspects, both 34, appeared before a prosecutor later in the day and were formally charged with deliberate arson, illegal violence and causing damage.
Police spokesman Christos Parthenis said a search of the suspects’ homes revealed “slogans and symbols of a particular political party” on a bedroom cupboard. A photo of the cupboard later released by police showed handwritten slogans supporting the extreme right Golden Dawn party, a formerly fringe group that has gained a significant following as Greece struggles through a deep financial crisis.
The party and its members, including some of the 18 lawmakers who gained seats in parliament in last year’s general election, have often been accused of being behind a surge in violent attacks against immigrants in Greece. The party denies such charges.
The suspects, along with another three men, allegedly verbally harassed the 34-year-old man from Cameroon Monday evening, threatening to burn down his coffee bar, Parthenis said. The two are accused of carrying out their threat overnight in the early hours of Tuesday, breaking into the cafe and setting it alight.
Police are searching for the other three suspects who remain at large and are investigating whether the two already arrested were involved in other recent cases of racist violence, the spokesman said.
Earlier this week, the medical aid group Medecins du Monde said they had treated a 14-year-old Afghan boy who suffered wounds to the face and head after being beaten by three men as he emerged from a subway station in central Athens.
The boy told the aid group in a video testimony that his attackers all wore black T-shirts bearing the same symbol. Although the boy said he didn’t recognize it, his description was similar to the Golden Dawn symbol which the party says represents the ancient Greek meander motif surrounded by laurel leaves.
On Wednesday, police said they were investigating another violent attack which occurred Sunday in the same area by five men against a 20-year-old Syrian refugee.
Once on the political sidelines and garnering less than 0.3 per cent of the vote in 2009 elections, Golden Dawn enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity as Greece found itself struggling through a deep and protracted recession, with unemployment spiraling to above 26 per cent.
Campaigning on a vehemently anti-immigrant, populist platform, the party won nearly 7 per cent of the vote in last June’s elections. Recent opinion polls have placed it consistently as the country’s third-most popular party.
The government has been working on drawing up legislation that will penalize politicians for hate speech or racist comments or actions.