NEWS

Top PM aide forced out after talks with GD revealed

One of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s closest aides, Panayiotis Baltakos, was forced to resign on Wednesday after a video posted on the Internet showed him apparently accusing the premier of trying to influence a prosecutors' investigation into neofascist Golden Dawn, triggering a political storm.

Baltakos, the cabinet secretary, announced his resignation just a few hours after the release of the video, which was secretly filmed by Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris and shows Baltakos speaking critically of Samaras’s role in the GD crackdown and suggesting the premier had tried to influence the probe to secure votes for New Democracy.

Questioned by reporters, Samaras said he knew nothing about the affair, adding however that, “if what’s being said is true, then Baltakos has no position in the government.” Shortly afterward, Baltakos issued a letter of resignation, apologizing for the upheaval caused by his comments, which he said he had made to “relieve pressure” being exerted on him by Golden Dawn. He claimed to have had a second meeting with Kasidiaris during which he told the latter there was no evidence that the investigation against GD had been influenced.

In the video, Baltakos can be heard telling Kasidiaris that he and two other GD MPs were released pending trial last fall because there was no evidence against them and suggesting that the detention of another three MPs had followed phone calls made by Justice Minister Haralambos Athanasiou and Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias to judicial officials. Baltakos also can be heard saying that Samaras was worried about losing votes to Golden Dawn. “Because you are stopping him from having a lead over SYRIZA,” he said, referring to the main leftist opposition.

The release of the video also triggered a brawl outside Baltakos’s office in the Parliament building when the policeman guarding the office allegedly kicked GD MP Artemis Matthaiopoulos, prompting GD lawmakers to respond in kind and Baltakos’s son, Dimitris, to assault three of them, including Matthaiopoulos.

PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos was quick to distance his party from Baltakos, who he referred to as an “old problem” as he suggested that the Socialists had to make some unpleasant compromises to stay in a coalition with New Democracy. “This government is one of cooperation and it has the aim of confronting a national emergency,” said Venizelos on the sidelines of a European Union meeting he was attending in his capacity as foreign minister.

Former coalition partner Democratic Left (DIMAR) suggested that questions also had to be asked about Samaras for trusting Baltakos, who clashed frequently with the leftists when they were in government. “This is a major political issue,” said DIMAR. “The prime minister kept in his position for a long time a political figure that had provoked public opinion through his actions.”

SYRIZA also accused Samaras of being “personally responsible” for Baltakos. The leftists also called on the government to clarify whether it had attempted to influence the judicial process.

The whole affair started earlier on Wednesday when Kasidiaris referred to the existence of the video during a debate on lifting the immunity of five Golden Dawn MPs. Eventually the vote was held and a majority of lawmakers voted in favor of lifting the immunity of four GD MPs – Michail Arvanitis-Avramis, Eleni Zaroulia, Nikolaos Kouzilos and Dimitris Koukoutsis – on charges of setting up a criminal organization. Lawmakers also voted in favor of lifting the immunity of party spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris, who has already been charged with setting up a criminal organization and faces additional charges of illegal weapons possession. Wednesday's votes brought the total number of GD MPs facing prosecution on charges of setting up a criminal investigation to 13. Six of the 13 are in jail, including party leader Nikos Michaloliakos.

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