ATHENS (Reuters) - Golden Dawn lawmaker Ilias Kasidiaris, the Greek far-right party's main public face, was jailed on Thursday pending trial on gun possession charges, delivering a fresh blow to a party already reeling from a government-led crackdown.
Golden Dawn is Greece's third most popular party but has been forced onto the backfoot since the crackdown, which has landed its leader and senior lawmakers in jail awaiting trial.
The party is accused of being a neo-Nazi criminal gang that attacks immigrants and leftist opponents - accusations it denies. It says it is the victim of a political witch hunt.
Kasidiaris, who sports a swastika-like tattoo on his arm and first shot to fame for slapping a female Communist lawmaker on live television in 2012, has been the party's main public figure since leader Nikolaos Mihaloliakos was arrested last year.
Kasidiaris, who is his party's spokesman, denied the accusations of illegal gun possession with the intention of supplying arms to a criminal group.
"For two hunting rifles I am being accused of supplying arms to a criminal organization," Kasidiaris said at the courthouse before the ruling. "This accusation is ridiculous and my persecution is clearly political."
He is the ninth Golden Dawn lawmaker to be put behind bars since the crackdown began last September, when a party supporter stabbed an anti-racism rapper. Leader Mihaloliakos has been in pre-trial detention in Athens' high security prison since then.
Golden Dawn rose from obscurity to enter parliament for the first time in 2012, tapping into a wave of anger over mass unemployment and deep austerity cuts - the price Greeks have paid for bailout loans of about 240 billion euros from the European Union and International Monetary Fund. Although the party has kept a low profile in recent months during the investigation, its popularity remains strong. In the May 25 European elections, it won nearly 10 percent of the vote to enter the European Parliament for the first time. In the 2012 national election, it won 7 percent of the vote.
Kasidiaris, who was briefly arrested and then released awaiting trial last October on charges of belonging to a criminal group, scored an impressive 16 percent of the vote to rank fourth in an Athens mayoral race that coincided with the EU vote.
Golden Dawn's strong showing has increased pressure on Prime Minister Antonis Samaras as he tries to rein in the far-right group. Samaras's own conservative party lost to the radical leftist opposition in the EU vote.
Additional reporting by Karolina Tagaris, editing by Deepa Babington and Gareth Jones