Athens: In a landmark verdict, a former Greek defence minister and co-founder of the country’s once-mighty Socialist Party, Akis Tsochatzopoulos, has been found guilty of setting up a complex money-laundering network to cover the trail of millions of dollars in bribes he is said to have pocketed from government weapons purchases.
After a five-month trial – the highest-profile case against a Greek politician in more than two decades – judges convicted Tsochatzopoulos, 74, along with 16 other defendants, including his wife, his daughter and several business partners. All were found to have colluded with him to launder the bribe money using a network of offshore companies and property purchases.
Tsochatzopoulos was sentenced to 20 years in prison, said his lawyer, Leonidas Kotsalis, who added that his client would appeal.
Regardless of the sentencing decision on the money laundering charges, Tsochatzopoulos will not escape prison. He was sentenced in March to eight years for concealing assets from the authorities, chiefly for failing to report the purchase of a house near the Acropolis, one of several properties connected to the money laundering scheme.
Tsochatzopoulos, who has been in custody at the capital’s Korydallos Prison since his arrest in April 2012, accused the authorities of political persecution and state violence during the trial, which featured vicious exchanges between him and his former associates.
He is the most senior government official to stand trial since 1991, when former Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou was acquitted on charges of accepting bribes in return for forcing state companies to prop up a troubled private bank.
In a telephone interview after the verdict, Mr Kotsalis said he had “strong reservations about the legal substantiation” of claims that his client accepted bribes.
The court heard that Tsochatzopoulos pocketed nearly $US75 million ($79.6 million) in bribes while serving as defence minister from 1996 to 2001, signing two major deals worth an estimated $US4 billion for a Russian missile defence system and German submarines.
Tsochatzopoulos had repeatedly called for members of a political and defence council that co-signed those contracts – including two former prime ministers, Costas Simitis and George A. Papandreou – to testify at his trial. But the request was rejected by the judges, who said the bribery accusations, not the arms deals, were under scrutiny.
The conviction in Athens in Monday was unusual in a country where top-ranking state officials are rarely prosecuted. But over the past year, the government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has intensified a crackdown on corruption among the political elite, blamed by most Greeks for a dysfunctional state system that created the country’s huge debt problem and led Greece to dependence on foreign rescue loans.
In February, Vassilis Papageorgopoulos, a former mayor of Salonika, the country’s second city, was sentenced to life in prison for embezzling at least $US24.5 million from the city.