Former Defense Minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos, who is accused of accepting bribes and laundering money, went on trial with another 18 suspects at the Athens Appeals Court on Monday in the first criminal trial of a key political figure in Greece for 22 years.
Tsochatzopoulos, who served as defense minister between 1996 and 2001, allegedly took bribes as part of the process of awarding procurement contracts.
It is the first trial of such a prominent political figure since several PASOK politicians, including late Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, faced a court in connection to the Giorgos Koskotas scandal in 1991.
Two deals in particular have been under scrutiny: for the TOR M1 missile defense system and the purchase of submarines for the Hellenic Navy.
The contracts for these two procurements were worth about 3 billion euros.
Prosecutors believe that some 160 million euros in bribes was paid as part of the two deals. With the help of former Defense Ministry official Yiannis Sbokos and others, Tsochatzopoulos allegedly siphoned this money off using offshore companies. So far, authorities have traced 57 million euros. The ex-minister denies the charges.
Tsochatzopoulos cannot be tried for accepting bribes because of the statute of limitations for offenses committed by politicians. However, he can be tried for money laundering as this offense is alleged to have continued even after he left office.
Money laundering carries a maximum sentence of 20 years, with 73-year-old Tsochatzopoulos facing the possibility of serving up to 12 years in jail if he is found guilty and handed such a term.
Sources close to the ex-minister indicate that in the face of the evidence against him, he will try to convince the court that his prosecution is politically motivated and that he did not bear sole responsibility for approving the contracts in question. Tsochatzopoulos has accused New Democracy and PASOK of making him a scapegoat.
On Friday, he made a request for the other members of the Government Council for Foreign Affairs and Defense (KYSEA), which approved the deals, to appear in court. This includes former Prime Minister Costas Simitis. The request was declined but Tsochatzopoulos is expected to bring the matter up again once the trial starts.
In March, a council of appeals court judges ruled that 19 out of a total of 21 suspects should be tried. In their 1,000-page report, the judges said there was not enough evidence to prosecute Stamati’s aunt and Eftichios Atsopardis, the legal representative of one of the offshore companies that was allegedly used to launder the slush money.
Apart from Tsochatzopoulos and Stamati, those who will stand trial are: Asterios Economidis, Efrosini Lambropoulou, Nikos Zigras, Giorgos Sachpatzidis, Areti Tsochatzopoulou (the ex-minister’s daughter), Yiannis Sbokos, Nikos Georgoulakis, Panayiotis Stamatis, Pantelis Zachariadis, Oratios Melas, Constantinos Antoniadis, Spyros Chatzinikolaou, Gudrun Moldenhauer (Tsochatzopoulos’s first wife), Fotis Arvanitidis, Nikos Karatzas and Giorgos Konstantatos. Eight of the suspects have been in pretrial custody since last year.
Also last month, another court ruled that Tsochatzopoulos had failed to declare his assets properly over the last few years and handed him an an eight-year jail term. It also ordered the confiscation of his luxury home in central Athens. Apart from the apartment on Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, authorities have also temporarily seized another 23 properties belonging to Tsochatzopoulos and his relatives. The properties are estimated to have a taxable value of 18.5 million euros. Their actual market value is thought to be much higher.