In the most high-profile criminal trial of a politician in Greece for more than two decades, a former defense minister, Akis Tsochatzopoulos, appeared in a court here on Monday charged with setting up a complex money laundering network to cover the trail of millions of euros in bribes he is accused of pocketing from government defense deals.
Mr. Tsochatzopoulos, 73, a onetime socialist heavyweight, is on trial with his wife, daughter and another 16 former aides and associates alleged to have participated in the scheme. He, his relatives and another five suspects have been in custody at Athens' high-security Korydallos Prison for the past year.
All but one of the 19 defendants pleaded not guilty. The former minister's first cousin and one-time business partner and confidant, Nikos Zigras, pleaded guilty and apologized to the court, requesting "understanding and leniency." Mr. Tsochatzopoulos once again denied the charges which he said were "despicable" and described the year-long detention of himself and his relatives as "state violence." The trial was adjourned and is to continue on May 8, after Greek Orthodox Easter.
Mr. Tsochatzopoulos and his wife, who were transferred to the courthouse on Monday morning by a police bus, have been subjected to intense media scrutiny of their wealth as the living standards of ordinary Greeks plummeted after three years of austerity. Dressed in a dark blue suit and clutching a file of documents, the white-haired minister held his head high as police escorted him into the court building while his 50-year-old wife, a former assistant in his political office, appeared pale and drawn.
The charges are highly unusual in a country where top-ranking state officials are rarely prosecuted. During his stint as defense minister between 1996 and 2001 and for several years after that, Mr. Tsochatzopoulos is alleged to have used a network of offshore companies to siphon off millions of euros in bribes he is said to have taken in exchange for procurement contracts including the purchase of a Russian missile defense system and German submarines.
According to prosecutors, around 160 million euros, or about $210 million, in bribes was paid for those two deals which were worth an estimated 3 billion euros. Authorities have traced 57 million euros.
The former minister, a founding member of the country's once dominant socialist Pasok, which is now part of a conservative-led coalition, claims his prosecution is politically motivated. He has called for members of the political and defense council that co-signed the contracts for the defense deals — including two former prime ministers, Costas Simitis and George Papandreou — to testify at his trial which is expected to last several months. The request has been rejected by the Greek judiciary which said the bribery allegations, not the deals, were under scrutiny.
Irrespective of the outcome of his trial for money laundering, which could yield a 20-year prison term, Mr. Tsochatzopoulos will not escape jail time. Last month he was sentenced to eight years in prison for concealing assets from the authorities, notably by failing to report the purchase of a neo-Classical mansion near the Acropolis. That property has been linked to the money laundering scheme Mr. Tsochatzopoulos is alleged to have set up.
With public anger growing after the years of economic crisis, the government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has vowed to crack down on corruption among the political elite whom most Greeks blame for the dysfunctional state system that created the country's huge debt problem and led it to dependence on foreign rescue loans. In an unusually severe sentence in February, a court in Salonika, Greece's second-largest city, convicted the former mayor, Vassilis Papageorgopoulos, to life in prison for embezzling at least 18 million euros from city coffers.
Last September, the Greek authorities began examining the bank accounts of more than 30 politicians to determine whether they should be charged with tax evasion and other crimes and last month three former ministers were charged with submitting false income declarations.
Mr. Tsochatzopoulos is the most senior government official to stand trial since the former prime minister and Pasok founder, Andreas Papandreou, was acquitted in 1991 on charges of accepting bribes in return for forcing state companies to prop up a troubled private bank.