FORMER Greek defence minister Akis Tsochadzopoulos has gone on trial for corruption in a case seen by ordinary Greeks as a test of the will to prosecute members of the political elite who have profited from their connections.
Tsochadzopoulos strongly denied the money laundering charges against him yesterday, the first day of a trial against him and another 18 defendants, including members of his immediate family.
Tsochadzopoulos, his wife, Vicky Stamati, daughter, Areti, and another five of the suspects have spent the past year in jail awaiting the corruption trial, stemming from allegations of huge bribes attached to defence contracts.
In March, Tsochadzopoulos, 73, was sentenced to eight years in prison in a separate but related trial after being convicted of filing false income declarations.
The case has been a dramatic fall from grace for the former political high-flier, who served as defence minister from 1996 to 2001 and development minister between 2001 and 2004. The Socialist PASOK party he belonged to dominated Greek politics for decades, but saw its public support hammered over its handling of the severe financial crisis that broke out in late 2009.
Struggling to tame the country’s runaway debt, Greece now depends on international rescue loans for survival, and successive governments have imposed punishing austerity measures. PASOK is currently a junior partner in the conservative-led coalition government.
The accused also include Tsochadzopoulos’s German-born ex-wife Gudrun, his cousin, Nikos Zigros, plus a former accountant, a lawyer and several former associates and businessmen. All have been charged with money laundering and face up to 20 years in prison if convicted. All except Zigros have denied the charges.
The trial is expected to last several months. The first day was taken up mainly with procedural issues before being adjourned to 8 May, after the Easter break.
“I categorically and absolutely reject the indictment, which systematically attempts to give the impression that there was an illegal criminal organisation, a gang, that aimed to launder dirty money,” said Tsochadzopoulos.
He said the charges alleged he had been behind such an organisation, “when for six years we were doing the best that could be done for the country”.
The state is also acting as a civil claimant in the case, seeking €1 million from each defendant for “moral damages”.
The trial is being held in the ceremonies hall of the Athens appeals court to ensure there is enough room for 19 defendants, about 50 lawyers and dozens of reporters.
Tsochadzopoulos has been accused of setting up a system of bribes from purchases of military hardware, in particular German-made submarines and a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile system, allegedly funnelling the money into property deals.
Greek defence spending has always been higher than average for a European country in the post-war era, largely as a deterrent to Turkey, a fellow Nato member.