Former Defense Minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos vehemently refuted charges of money laundering on Monday as the most significant criminal trial of a key political figure in the past 22 years got under way.
Tsochatzopoulos, who has been accused of setting up a complex money laundering scheme to conceal millions of euros in kickbacks he is alleged to have received from defense contracts, is being tried along with another 18 suspects including his wife and daughter, his ex-wife and several former businesses associates.
All but one of the suspects, the former minister’s cousin and one-time confidant Nikos Zigras, pleaded innocent to money laundering. Zigras pleaded guilty to the charges brought against him, referring to “a case in which Tsochatzopoulos has implicated me,” and appealed to the court to show “understanding and leniency.”
The 73-year-old former socialist veteran and his wife, Viki Stamati, were transferred to the premises of the Athens Appeals Court from the capital’s high-security prison in Korydallos on a police bus on Monday morning. The ex-minister’s daughter, Areti, did not appear in court, citing health and psychological problems.
Prosecutors believe some 160 million euros were paid in kickbacks for two defense deals alone – for a Russian anti-missile defense system and for German-made submarines. Tsochatzopoulos insisted he did not take any kickbacks while at the Defense Ministry between 1996 and 2001.
“I categorically deny the charges, which attempt to create the impression that there is a criminal organization, a gang, which has the aim of laundering money and that supposedly behind all this is the Greek defense minister, who during six years did the best that he could for the country,” he said. He appealed for his wife to be released pending trial, describing the pre-trial detention of himself and his relatives over the past year as “state violence.”
Tsochatzopoulos, who faces up to 20 years in jail if convicted of money laundering, was last month sentenced to an eight-year term for inaccurately declaring the source of his assets.
The former minister also asked for other members of the Government Council for Foreign Affairs and Defense (KYSEA), including former Prime Minister Costas Simitis, to appear in court as they approved the two procurement contracts being examined by prosecutors. But that appeal was already rejected by judicial authorities who said that it is not the defense deals but the alleged bribes are the focus of the trial. In total Tsochatzopoulos’s defense team has asked for 70 witnesses to be heard.
Public prosecutors, for their part, demanded that penalties of 1 million euros be imposed on each of the defendants and for the alleged bribes to be returned to state coffers.
The trial was adjourned until May 8.