Former defense minister gets 20 years in jail

In a historic verdict, an Athens court on Monday passed down a 20-year jail sentence to former Defense Minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos after finding him guilty of laundering millions of euros in kickbacks from defense deals. It also handed heavy terms to another 16 of his co-defendants.

After a five-month trial, the Athens appeals court meted out the heaviest possible sentence to the 74-year-old ex-minister. High-ranking judicial sources suggested that Tsochatzopoulos would serve at least eight years in prison — a third of the sum of the 20-year sentence and another conviction from March – an eight-year jail term for failing to properly declare his assets to authorities.

Tsochatzopoulos’s wife Viki Stamati and his daughter Areti Tsochatzopoulou were both sentenced to 12 years in jail. The former head of procurements at the Defense Ministry, Yiannis Sbokos, got 16 years, the businessman Giorgos Sachpatzidis was given 13 years, while Asterios Economidis, the head of one of the offshore firms linked to the money laundering racket, got 12 years. Only Nikos Zigras, the ex-minister’s first cousin and one-time confidant, was shown leniency after cooperating with judicial authorities with judges giving him six years.

Zigras was the only one of the original 19 defendants who admitted to any involvement in the racket and had pressed Tsochatzopoulos to “tell the truth” until the very last court session. Tsochatzopoulos’s ex-wife, Gudrun Moldenhauer, was also given six years. Two of the 19 co-defendants were acquitted.

It was decided that all those who have been in pre-trial custody would remain there whether they appeal their sentences or not, except for Zigras whose testimony was a crucial tool for prosecutors seeking to make a watertight case.

Tsochatzopoulos, a co-founder of PASOK and former socialist stalwart, was found to have pocketed some 55 million euros in bribes from defense deals while serving as defense minister from 1996 to 2001, chiefly from the purchase of a missile-defense system from Russia and submarines from Germany. His lawyers had contested the basis of the trial, as Tsochatzopoulos could not be prosecuted for bribe-taking due to the statute of limitations. The statute does not apply to money laundering.

Vehemently denying all charges, despite significant evidence, the ex-minister had claimed he was being unfairly targeted by the political establishment and had called for testimony from members of the former Government Council for Foreign Affairs and Defense, who co-signed the deals he sealed. The request was refused by judges who said they were focusing on the cash trail rather than the deals.