ATHENS, Greece — A week after an extremist right-wing party gained an electoral foothold in Greece’s Parliament earlier this summer, 50 of its members riding motorbikes and armed with heavy wooden poles roared through Nikaia, a gritty suburb west of here, to telegraph their new power.
As townspeople watched, several of them said in interviews, the men careened around the main square, some brandishing shields emblazoned with swastika-like symbols, and delivered an ultimatum to immigrants whose businesses have catered to Nikaia’s Greeks for nearly a decade.
“They said: ‘You’re the cause of Greece’s problems. You have seven days to close or we’ll burn your shop — and we’ll burn you,’” said Mohammed Irfan, a legal Pakistani immigrant who owns a hair salon and two other stores.
When he called the police for help, he said, the officer who answered said they did not have time to come to the aid of immigrants.
A spokesman for the party, Golden Dawn, denied that anyone associated with the group had made such a threat, and there are no official numbers on attacks against immigrants. But a new report by Human Rights Watch warns that xenophobic violence has reached “alarming proportions” in parts of Greece, and it accuses the authorities of failing to stop the trend.
Since the election, an abundance of anecdotal evidence has indicated a marked rise in violence and intimidation against immigrants by members of Golden Dawn and its sympathizers. They are emboldened, rights groups say, by political support for their anti-immigrant ideology amid the worst economic crisis to hit Greece in a decade.
The situation in Greece shows how quickly such vigilante activity can expand as a government is either too preoccupied with the financial crisis or unable or disinclined to deal with the problem. Threats, beatings and vows by Golden Dawn followers to “rid the land of filth,” sporadic problems in recent years, have become commonplace since the party claimed 18 of Parliament’s 300 seats in the elections last month, even after Ilias Kasidiaris, the party’s spokesman, repeatedly slapped a female rival during a televised debate.
While some attackers are being arrested, Human Rights Watch and other groups accuse the Greek police of increasingly looking the other way when confronted with evidence of violence, and even standing by while the beatings are going on. All of this, the report by Human Rights Watch says, is “in stark contrast to government reassurances.”