The photos on the living-room sideboard form a small shrine in memory of a lost son: Pavlos at his sister’s wedding, Pavlos in concert, Pavlos as a teenager... He was a fine looking boy with immense dark eyes, and a nice smile. “Above all he had a big heart. Everyone took to him immediately,” murmurs his mother Magda, who appears hypnotised by these images of happy times. Behind her, Pavlos’ father, Panagiotis, remains immured in grief and does not respond.

Two knife wounds to the heart transformed their son into a symbol for the descent into criminality of far right party Golden Dawn, a movement which entered the Greek parliament for the first time in 2012. Thirty-four year-old rapper Pavlos Fyssas would certainly have preferred to rise to fame with his music, but he became front-page news as a martyr: stabbed in the early hours of September 18 by activists from the political group which has since been widely characterised as neo-Nazi. In just a few days, the death of a young man in a working class suburb on the night of a football match triggered a political earthquake and became an affair of state. For the first time since the restoration of democracy in 1974, the leadership of a party represented in parliament faced very serious criminal charges.

In the wake of the crime, many people remarked on the role played by “one killing too many,” which came as a wake-up call for public opinion and state authorities. Unlike the previous and almost exclusively immigrant victims of Golden Dawn, Pavlos Fyssas was Greek. However, this observation begs another question: what brought Golden Dawn, a party which claimed to be fiercely nationalist that was exclusively open to “native born Greeks,” to take a step too far with the public murder of a young Greek? Who guided the hand of the killer: an otherwise unremarkable 45-year-old lorry driver and father of two, who had everything to lose from his involvement in the crime?

Spoiling for a fight

The truth is that the assassination of Pavlos might very well have gone unnoticed, and the investigation of what could have been seen as a local murder might have been quickly abandoned. But on the night of the crime, thanks to the unexpected reaction of policewoman, this scenario did not play out.

On September 17, Pavlos met with his girlfriend, Chryssa, and a few friends to watch the match between Olympiacos and Paris Saint-Germain. Like all of the young people in the Piraeus area, Pavlos was an ardent Olympiacos supporter ready to howl at every missed penalty. “They arrived just before the start of the game. I remember very well because I knew Pavlos a little, even though I didn’t know he was a rapper. For me, he was just another youngster in the neighbourhood,” explains the owner of the Coralie Café, a Keratsini bar which has a covered terrace with a large flat screen TV. “Nothing happened during the game: Pavlos and his gang were drinking beer, there was a lively atmosphere, as there always is when Olympiacos are playing. But no misbehaviour.” The bar owner says he didn’t notice two or three men (there are different versions of the story) who, according to some witnesses, sent text messages while watching Pavlos during the match. “It was only at the end of the evening, when everyone was leaving, that I saw the gang, which appeared out of nowhere on the other side of the street,” says the owner.

Around 20 men who were already spoiling for a fight started shouting at the rapper and his friends, who were still in the street outside

Around 20 men who were already spoiling for a fight started shouting at the rapper and his friends, who were still in the street outside. The exchange quickly became heated. Three men broke away from the group and started pushing Pavlos. Chryssa, his girlfriend who had stayed out of all of this, became alarmed. She tried in vain to alert a group of police, who remained curiously passive while observing the scene from distance. She was still begging them to do something when a car suddenly drove up at high speed, and stopped just in front of the mob. A man got out, grabbed Pavlos as if he was going to kiss him and stabbed him twice in the heart. Before he collapsed, the young man just had time to point out his murderer to the police who had finally moved in.

It was at that moment, breaking with the inertia of her colleagues, that a policewoman suddenly pulled out her weapon, and aimed it at the murderer, who seemed so certain of his impunity that he stayed at the scene in his car, after having thrown his knife in the gutter. “Were it not for the courage of the policewoman who arrested the killer, we would still be speculating about the cause of a murder which would never have been seen as political. And some people still argue that it was just an after-match brawl that went wrong,” points out Pavlos Tsimas, a celebrated journalist for Mega TV, the country’s primary private channel.

Political dimension

Initially, this was the predominant view of the facts: a football related fight between suburban youths. But investigators quickly discovered that the man arrested for the murder, Georges Roupakias, was a member of Golden Dawn. And examination of his mobile phone revealed that he had called several party officials just before and just after the crime. A card-carrying member for just one year, he was on the party payroll and appeared in several photos of gatherings organised by the neo-Nazis — notwithstanding the denials from the leaders of Golden Dawn, who initially claimed they did not know him. Thanks to evidence compiled by the Greek secret service, which had monitored their communications for quite some time, the party leaders were soon arrested too.

The police already had enough evidence to put party officials behind bars… Why didn’t they take action earlier?

It appears there is some positive outcome. But some commentators have been disturbed by the fact that the police already had enough evidence to put party officials behind bars… Why didn’t they take action earlier? “Golden Dawn played a very convenient role. The party rose to popularity on the back of claims that it was "anti-establishment" and opposed to a traditional political class that the entire country detested. But this was only window dressing. In parliament, Golden Dawn always voted with the government: for the layoffs, privatisations, and wage cuts.

The same logic applied for the attacks on foreigners, which helped to justify and minimise the impact of anti-immigration policies. By night, Golden Dawn orchestrated the pogroms; by day, the government encouraged the roundup and imprisonment of migrants in camps with inhuman living conditions,” explains Dimitri Zotas, a lawyer who represents several of the migrant victims of the neo-Nazi party, in his office in downtown Athens. “The problem was its creators finally lost control of Golden Dawn. Buoyed by their rising popularity, which was close to 15 per cent before Pavlos was murdered, and never troubled about their attacks on immigrants, the neo-Nazis felt they were invulnerable. They believed that they could even further, maybe even too far.”

Read the second part of this special investigation