May 19, 2024

Greek Editor Not Guilty in Publishing Names With Swiss Accounts

The verdict came four days after a phalanx of police officers arrested the editor, Kostas Vaxevanis, as his magazine, Hot Doc, hit newsstands with the list. Before a packed court, Mr. Vaxevanis and his lawyers portrayed him as the target of a politically motivated campaign aimed at damping the public anger at Greek officials.

The list that Mr. Vaxevanis obtained and published was handed to the Greek authorities two years ago by Christine Lagarde, then the French finance minister and now the head of the International Monetary Fund, to help Greece crack down on tax evasion as it was trying to mend its economy. The list held names of 2,059 Greeks who held accounts at a Geneva branch of the British bank HSBC, which includes a former culture minister, several employees of the Finance Ministry and a number of business leaders. “The court finds the defendant innocent,” Judge Malia Volika said in handing down the decision.

Mr. Vaxevanis emerged from the packed courtroom to cheers from a large crowd. He hailed the “courage” of the judge, adding: “Journalism for far too long has been a hostage to political forces that don’t allow it to work. This decision sets a precedent that allows my colleagues to do their jobs without political handcuffs.”

In his testimony, Mr. Vaxevanis accused politicians of sitting on the information to protect powerful interests. He charged that Greece was governed by a small coterie of business elites protected by politicians and by news organizations owned by a handful of influential Greek magnates.

“Greek people have known for two years now that there is a list of people who are rich, rightly or wrongly, and they are untouchable,” Mr. Vaxevanis told the court. “At the same time, the Greek people are on the other side, they are suffering cuts.”

“The political system has been hiding the truth for so long,” he said.

At times, the courtroom took on a chaotic atmosphere, with a court-appointed interpreter botching the Greek translation for a British journalist testifying for the defense, and Mr. Vaxevanis’s lawyers shouting in protest. Cellphones rang and cigarette smoke wafted through the standing-room-only chamber as the judge, sitting beneath a Greek Orthodox painting of Jesus, banged the table with her hand to restore order.

The prosecutor, Iraklis Pasalidis, called no witnesses and sat stone-faced during most of the trial. He submitted a blank witness list to the judge, a move that one lawyer deemed “an analogy of the blank nature of the allegations.”

Mr. Pasalidis nevertheless argued strongly that Mr. Vaxevanis should be found guilty for defaming people without determining their guilt. “These are the culprits, take them and crucify them,” Mr. Pasalidis told the court. “Is this a solution to the country’s problems? Cannibalism?”

The argument did not prevail.

To support his case, Mr. Vaxevanis cited one of those named: Lavrentis Lavrentiadis, a Greek oligarch and the former chairman of Proton Bank.

Proton received a bailout of $129 million arranged by Evangelos Venizelos, a former finance minister.

A financial prosecutor is now examining whether Mr. Venizelos and George Papaconstantinou, another former finance minister, told Greek tax authorities not to investigate those on the list. On Thursday, the prosecutor asked Parliament to investigate whether any politicians should face criminal charges for failing to determine whether any of the individuals on the list were guilty of tax evasion.

Defense lawyers disputed the charges that Mr. Vaxevanis violated privacy laws, noting that none of the people named had filed a complaint over privacy violation.

Dimitris Bounias contributed reporting.

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