She’s Facing Off Against Neo-Nazis — in Court and on the Streets
Attorney Eleftheria Elfie Tompatzoglou’s lifelong fight against fascism is culminating in Greece’s trial of the century.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she’s taking on the biggest trial against fascism in Europe since Nuremberg.
Shortly after midnight on Sept. 18, 2013, members of the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn accosted Pavlos Fyssas and his friends in an Athens suburb. Fyssas’ friends got away, but the anti-fascist rapper was chased down, encircled and beat up. Giorgos Roupakias, a professed member of Golden Dawn, then stabbed the 34-year-old to death in front of five police officers who didn’t intervene.
“I thought the killing was going to trigger a civil war,” says Eleftheria Elfie Tompatzoglou, one of three attorneys representing the Fyssas family. “There was no way anti-fascist groups were going to let this go.”
For decades, Golden Dawn has attacked migrants and refugees with relative impunity, but the killing of a Greek citizen set off a storm. Weeks of riots and protests prompted the government to arrest 69 members of Golden Dawn, including its 18 elected officials in Parliament. Along with plotting to kill Fyssas, the party is charged with attempting to kill migrants, weapons possession and operating as a criminal organization.
The trial, which has dragged on for more than four years, with a verdict expected next summer, is described as the biggest case against fascism in Europe since former Nazi leaders were prosecuted in Nuremberg in 1945. Much of the historic and far-reaching case rests on Tompatzoglou’s attempt to prove that Fyssas’ murder was premeditated.
The beating lasted several minutes, but Tompatzoglou didn’t notice the gash on her head until the attackers fled.
For Tompatzoglou, taking on fascism is a lifelong fight. The older of two sisters, she joined the Greek Communist Party when she was just 17. Disillusioned by its ideology, she left five years later to focus on studying law as a better path to justice. When asked to join the Fyssas case, she didn’t think twice.
“This was our chance to eliminate Golden Dawn by their own means,” says the 39-year-old with dyed ginger hair. “They came to power legally, but now we could use the law to get them out.”
The case poses a mortal threat to her and others involved. Since May 2015, Golden Dawn members have been released from prison after spending 18 months in pretrial detention, the maximum under Greek law. (Fyssas’ killer remains under house arrest.) Meanwhile, the trial has progressed at an abysmally slow pace due to the wealth of evidence, including more than 1,100 documents and hundreds of witness testimonies. If Fyssas’s murder is shown to be premeditated, it would help prosecutors convict Golden Dawn as a criminal organization.
“Evidence shows that Golden Dawn conspired to attack Pavlos three hours before he left a café,” she says. “But we also know that the perpetrators are instructed to use violence from the party.” Golden Dawn’s leaders maintain that they don’t sanction violence, nor was the killing of Fyssas planned, and Fyssas’s murderer, Roupakias, testified that it should be considered a simple homicide.
But the Hellenic League for Human Rights, a Greek nonprofit, alleges that Golden Dawn has unleashed well-trained squads to attack migrants. In 2018 alone, there were 117 incidents of racially motivated violence across Greece, according to a local monitoring group, many of which are believed to be tied to Golden Dawn or to smaller far-right groups that have splintered from the party since the trial.
On Feb. 25, 2018, Tompatzoglou was among several activists who were attacked in the Greek port of Piraeus at the Favela Free Social Center. A group of men stormed the center with crowbars and flares before rounding everyone up against the back wall. The beating lasted several minutes, but Tompatzoglou didn’t notice the gash on her head until the attackers fled.
“There was so much blood, and I remember asking my friends to call a doctor,” she says.
“She was trying to comfort everybody around her,” says Elenie, a member of Favela who arrived to the scene 10 minutes after the attack. (Elenie didn’t disclose her last name for fear of reprisal from far-right groups.)
The founder and leader of Golden Dawn, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, immediately denied responsibility. But not only did Tompatzoglou recognize one of the attackers, but the mob chanted “Blood, honor, Golden Dawn” as they jumped on their motorcycles and drove away, according to Tompatzoglou and news reports.
Months after the incident, Tompatzoglou met and married Dimitris — a friend of Fyssas’ — whose last name she didn’t disclose for fear of reprisals. The two are expecting their first child in January. Tompatzoglou clears her head by reading sci-fi books and painting. Otherwise, she’s focused on the trial and hasn’t given much thought to what she’ll do once it’s finished, but her incisive work on this case is sure to place her in high demand for more high-profile human-rights work. “She’s got a good grip on this case,” notes Antonis G. Bogias, a digital activist with monitoring group Golden Dawn Watch.
Roupakias will likely be locked up for life after admitting to the murder, and other party leaders could be handed anywhere between five and 15 years if convicted. The trial is hurting Golden Dawn politically, as it failed to secure enough votes to enter Parliament in July’s elections. Still, Golden Dawn commands a significant following. With attacks on refugees and migrants on the rise, Tompatzoglou says the state must do more to stop the violence.
In her view, undocumented migrants must be able to report hate crimes without fearing deportation or detention. She also suspects that some police officers let violent mobs attack communists and anarchists because they consider them enemies of the state. Five officers, after all, let Fyssas die. But they will never be prosecuted since suspects can’t legally be indicted five years after a crime is committed. For now, all Tompatzoglou can do is help throw Golden Dawn behind bars.
“This isn’t just about getting justice for Pavlos’ family,” she says with a solemn expression. “Our goal is to get justice for society.”