A Greek journalist is facing trial after having published a list of people with Swiss bank accounts, which the Greek government appears to have tried to cover up. EurActiv Greece reports.
In the midst of Greece’s worst economic crisis in the post-war period, Kostas Vaxevanis, editor of the Hot Doc news magazine, was arrested and taken to court yesterday (29 October) facing misdemeanour charges. A court hearing was postponed until Thursday.
Vaxevanis is accused of publishing the names of 2,059 Greek citizens with accounts in Swiss banks. The original list was given to George Papakonstantinou, the economy minister, in 2010, by his French counterpart at the time, Christine Lagarde, who today heads the International Monetary Fund.
The list – dubbed the Lagarde list – was published by Greek daily Ta Nea, which devoted 10 pages to it. There was no immediate legal action taken against the newspaper.
If convicted, Vaxevanis could face up to two years in prison for violating data privacy laws.
The Lagarde list contains no details of the amounts of money deposited with the bank, no indication of the origins of the funds and covers a period of seventeen years, from 1990 to 2007. None of those on the list has been accused of tax-related crimes.
Swiss authorities, as well as the bank, have not commented on the existence of the list. Informed sources explained that the Swiss banks have already closed the accounts, making it all but impossible for the Greek authorities to verify any of the information contained on the list.
Tax evasion is a major problem in Greece and the issue has taken added political relevance as the cataclysmic austerity measures implemented in the country at the behest of EU and international authorities.
The Lagarde list affair has been a controversial issue for the last year and a half. The former head of the Greek Secret Services obtained the information about the list from his French colleagues in 2010.
He passed on the information to Papakonstantinou, the Economics Minister in the George Papandreou government, who received a compact disk from Lagarde, then-French economy minister.
The disappearing disk
The disk disappeared. Recently, testifying to a Greek Parliament Committee investigating the affair, Papakonstantinou said he didn’t have it, claiming that he gave to one of his assistants. He refused to name the assistant, and insisted that he did not keep a copy and that he did not know where the original disk was.
A copy of the disk with the names was reportedly given to the head of an agency dealing with serious economic crimes, including tax evasion. The head of this agency, testifying in the same Parliamentary Committee, said that he had informed Evangelos Venizelos, Papakonstantinou's successor and president of the Socialist Party, of the existence of the list and that he gave him a copy.
What appears as certain is that no one did anything to investigate if any tax crimes were committed. Swiss authorities were not asked to help. None of those on the list was called by the Greek tax authorities to explain the origins of the funds held at HSBC in Geneva.
The issue resurfaced last summer when the Parliament held hearings on the Lagarde List and a Parliament committee discovered that there was no official in the government who could provide it with a copy of the disk.
For days the issue of the disappeared list was front page news in the Greek newspapers, the main TV news programmes and the social media. Finally, Venizelos, the head of the Socialist Party, remembered that he had a copy of the list which he gave to the prime minister, who turned it over to Parliament.
Reporters Without Borders, the French press freedom group, said in a statement: "We are particularly disturbed by the speed with which the authorities issued this arrest warrant. Vaxevanis is not a dangerous criminal and could have just been questioned. The pressure that the warrant puts on this journalist is clearly disproportionate. This excessive procedure also encourages the blackout that the authorities apparently want to impose on coverage of this case, which – although sensitive – is undeniably a subject of public interest."
Near-bankrupt Greece needs a comprehensive deal on an austerity package and reforms to unlock its next tranche of aid before it runs out of cash in mid-November. Greece?s gross public debt is equivalent to 171% of its economic output, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Athens has been locked in talks with its European Union and IMF lenders on the austerity package for months, but a final agreement has been held up by the small Democratic Left party's refusal to back the new wage laws.
The austerity package contains spending cuts and tax measures worth €13.5 billion as well as a long list of structural reforms to kick-start Greece's failing economy.