ATHENS Three senior lawmakers from Greece's far-right Golden Dawn were freed on Wednesday pending trial on criminal charges, an unexpected setback to the government's efforts to clamp down on a party it has labelled a neo-Nazi criminal gang.
The decision to free the men after a marathon, 18-hour court session raises questions about how strong the state's case against Golden Dawn is after one of its sympathisers stabbed an anti-fascism rapper to death last month.
Party spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris and fellow lawmakers Ilias Panagiotaros and Nikos Michos stormed out of the court to cheers of "bravo" from supporters. They shoved journalists out of the way before hailing a taxi.
"We will not back down!" Michos shouted. "You can only stop us with bullets. Even from the grave, we will rise up - know this well!"
A fourth Golden Dawn legislator, Yannis Lagos, was ordered to be kept in detention. All four denied charges against them.
Kasidiaris was released on bail of 50,000 euros (41,712.95 pounds). He, Michos and Ilias Panagiotaros were ordered not to leave Greece.
"Golden Dawn, now stronger and more determined than ever, will continue its legal political struggle to free our land and people from the international loan sharks and domestic servants of foreigners," the party said on its website.
"Golden Dawn will not die - Greece will be victorious!"
The four lawmakers were arrested on Saturday alongside party leader Nikolaos Mihaloliakos, who was due to appear before the judge later on Wednesday.
They have been charged on what prosecutors say is evidence linking the party with a series of attacks, including the stabbing of rapper Pavlos Fissas on September 17 and the killing of an immigrant earlier this year. A trial date has not been set.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's government has vowed to wipe out a party of "Nazi descendents". It has shied away from trying to ban the party outright but has ordered probes into them and plans to introduce laws against hate speech and deprive it of state funding to try to weaken the party.
The move to crack down on an elected political party - the first time since a military coup in Greece in 1967 - has shocked Greeks, and the three senior lawmakers' release comes as a surprise boost to a party that had been pushed on the defensive since the rapper's killing.
"The judicial investigation is continuing, the evidence is there, there are charges for criminal acts and this should not be forgotten," Interior Minister Yannis Michelakis told Greek TV following Wednesday's decision.
Responding to the charges against him behind closed doors, Kasidiaris denied before the magistrate that the party had paramilitary-like "storm troops" trained by him, a court official said on condition of anonymity.
He said he was a victim of political persecution.
Golden Dawn has drawn on anger over the country's debt crisis, financial cutbacks, high unemployment and corruption to become what opinion polls indicate is Greece's third most popular party.
It has been linked to attacks on dark-skinned immigrants by gangs of Golden Dawn supporters dressed in black and wielding baseball bats. Its appeal had appeared immune to accusations of barbarity until the killing of Fissas prompted outrage and protests.
Nazi memorabilia, including flags, helmets with swastikas and portraits of Adolph Hitler, have been found in the homes of arrested members but the party rejects the neo-Nazi label.
"The social and political front against Nazism and their proponents is a given and it is united," the government's spokesman, Simos Kedikoglou, said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Phoebe Fronista and Harry Papachristou; Writing by Karolina Tagaris, editing by Deepa Babington and Elizabeth Piper)