ATHENS, Feb 20 (Reuters) - Greek magistrates investigating the country's Golden Dawn party have asked parliament to lift the immunity from prosecution of nine of its lawmakers, clearing the way for criminal charges to be brought against them, court sources said on Thursday.
Greece's third-most-popular party, Golden Dawn has faced a government crackdown since September, when an anti-fascist rapper was fatally stabbed by a party sympathiser. All its lawmakers deny wrongdoing and say they are the victims of political persecution.
If parliament votes to lift their immunity, the nine are likely to be charged with being members or leaders of a criminal organisation, the sources said. That would mean all 18 of the party's lawmakers - six of whom are already behind bars pending trial - would have criminal charges against them.
Greek lawmakers are protected from prosecution and only parliament can lift their immunity.
What happens to the party and its lawmakers is being closely watched before elections in May. Party spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris said the request to lift immunity was ordered by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's "junta" in a bid to hurt their election prospects. He said the move would backfire and boost Golden Dawn's popularity.
"All these traitors, politicians and judges carrying out the greatest treason against the Greek people, the political system and our homeland will be severely punished," Kasidiaris told reporters outside parliament.
In addition to the criminal charges expected against the nine lawmakers, magistrates are expected to file more charges against six lawmakers, including Kasidiaris, who already have other charges pending against them, the court sources said.
That would mean a judge will decide whether they can be held in custody before trial on the new charges, even though some of them were conditionally released on earlier charges last year.
Golden Dawn is expected to perform strongly in the May vote as anger grows at harsh austerity policies and a political elite blamed for the country's economic crisis. Polls show support for Kasidiaris, who is running for mayor of Athens, at 10 percent.
Golden Dawn has vowed to contest the local and EU elections even if its lawmakers are jailed and the party outlawed. It says it has set up a new party called "National Dawn" that would contest the polls if Golden Dawn was prevented from doing so.
The government has resisted calls to ban the party, a move that would require amending the constitution and risks boosting their popularity further.
Golden Dawn, which sports a swastika-like symbol and whose supporters have been seen giving Nazi-style salutes, rose from being a fringe party to entering parliament in elections in 2012. It denies accusations that it is neo-Nazi group behind a wave of attacks against illegal immigrants. (Reporting by Renee Maltezou, editing by Deepa Babington and Larry King)