NEWS

Corruption in public life reflects social deterioration

You have called on prosecutors to embark on a general campaign against corruption, in an unrelenting struggle against illegality. Is there so much corruption in public life? We have all experienced the reality of life in Greece, and we all know, whether from personal observation or from the reports of monitoring bodies, what the situation is in certain areas of public administration. The words «trade-off» and «corruption» often pale in the face of reality. Sometimes they even lose their meaning. Bribes and tips These are phenomena which we have come to think of as quite natural and understandable. Little envelopes containing bribes and the tips given so as to expedite business are examples of things considered essential in order to get something done. This presents a very disappointing picture. Many public servants have appeared in court, on trial for embezzlement, betrayal of trust to the state, taking bribes and so on. And a large number of them have been sentenced. For example, one Appeals Court passed down 15 sentences in its area in the first three months of 2003 alone. In Trikala, we have a series of cases where the defendants were police officers accused of offenses such as breach of duty. Could one say that our political system has been corroded? I don’t think it’s a matter of the corrosion of our political system. It is a general deterioration which exists in society. It starts from the public and goes upward. The percentage of corruption that exists within society is passed on to its leaders. Governments and parties pride themselves on the independence of the judicial system. How independent is it? The judicial system is independent to the extent that judges and prosecutors possess the courage to remain uninfluenced. But we do have a legislative mesh which ensures the independence of judges. We have one dubious point, that of the selection of the chiefs of the higher courts by the government of the day. Many people talk about complementarity of authority, which should perhaps not be avoided in a normal democratic state, on condition, of course, that it is organized according to the correct criteria. If the choices are scandalous, they will naturally spark opposition. There have been some which have roused opposition in recent years, and rightly so. Of those who have served as president of the Supreme Court, apart from the current president Georgios Kapos, whom would you single out? The Supreme Court has had a number of excellent presidents, brilliant ones. Within recent years, I have to mention Dimitris Skoumbis, who stood out. He was chosen during the government of Constantine Karamanlis, and is a classic example of someone being chosen on their merits. He was chosen even though everyone knew he did not belong to the so-called conservative party. In very recent years there was Stefanos Matthias, who was a real personality in the Supreme Court. Have you personally received pressure from above? I’ve made sure to repel the first attempts at pressure ever since I was a young prosecutor in the First Instance Court. Is it easier to exert pressure on judges at lower levels? It may be easier. But let’s be honest, there is pressure on senior levels. There are some who lend a ready ear. That’s human; that will never disappear. The truth is that if one manages to convince people that one cannot be influenced and one’s opinion cannot be changed, they give up the effort. When the members of the Administrative Council of the Lawyers’ Association of Athens convened a meeting in your honor, you asked them to forgive any mistakes you have made. Have you really handed down many mistaken decisions? In a very good book written about the murder of [CBS correspondent George] Polk, there is a prologue by Panayiotis Kanellopoulos, who was one of Greece’s contemporary sages. He writes something which made a big impression on me. «Human justice is not divine, so it has the right to make mistakes.» He doesn’t say it can make mistakes, but that it has the right to do so. And I think it is absurd for anyone to claim that they haven’t made mistakes. Of course I’ve made mistakes. It’s not impossible, for example, that some witnesses who came to describe certain events were false witnesses and that I didn’t realize it. They may have been people with some status in society who wanted to help a defendant; that’s where a judge runs the risk of making a mistake. The constitution provides legal means for dealing with the mistakes of judges in higher courts. I’m surprised that some people are shocked by this. All right, they may not have made any mistakes, but I am being frank. I was misunderstood when I said I may have made mistakes in the Koskotas case. [Giorgos Koskotas’s massive embezzlement from the Bank of Crete in the late 1980s embroiled the Greek government in a major scandal.] I meant perhaps in terms of some decisions; for instance, I may have had a defendant that I set free on certain conditions when I could have held him on remand, having assessed his involvement as being less than it actually was. That doesn’t mean there was no Koskotas scandal.