Deadly November 17 to end its life in prison

The bloodiest chapter in Greece since the restoration of democracy in 1974 ended yesterday, when a three-judge court sentenced six members of the November 17 terrorist gang to a total of 55 life terms and another nine members to long imprisonment. The judges, sitting in a specially built courtroom in Korydallos Prison, adopted the stiff sentences proposed by prosecutor Christos Lambrou. N17 killed 23 people in a murder spree that began in December 1975, with the killing of CIA station chief Richard Welch, and ended in the summer of 2002 after a bomb blew up in the hands of one of its chief operatives, Savvas Xeros. His confession helped break the gang that had been the greatest mystery of the post-junta years and whose murders had cast a pall over Greek life and blackened the country’s reputation. The gang’s apparent impunity gave rise to conspiracy theories that included foreign services being behind it to the allegations that it had support in Greece’s political establishment. The trial did not solve all the riddles, as a poll published in the daily Eleftherotypia yesterday indicated: only 6.6 percent said they believed N17’s leaders were in prison, while 80.7 percent said other leaders had not been arrested. Yotopoulos, the French-born 59-year-old self-proclaimed «translator» who was convicted of being the gang’s mastermind, was sentenced to 21 terms of life imprisonment. Dimitris Koufodinas, the group’s chief of operations and its principal killer, received 13 life terms. Christodoulos Xeros was sentenced to 10 life terms, and his brother Savvas to six. Vassilis Tzortzatos and Iraklis Kostaris received four and one life term, respectively. Despite an additional 9,225 years of prison time handed down by the court, even the heaviest sentences allow convicts to apply for parole after 20 years. One life term is equal to a 25-year term and parole may be granted after 16 years. If sentenced to more than one life term, convicts must serve at least 20 years. Other sentences will run concurrently, with 25-year terms being the maximum – in which case parole is possible after three-fifths of this term are served. The prisoners have the right to appeal. Chief judge Michalis Margaritis, flanked by judges Nikos Zairis and Vassilis Kourkakis, ended the marathon trial which began on March 3. As he read out one sentence after the other for each crime, the defendants were silent and somber, a great change from the grandstanding of the previous months. Earlier this month, four of 19 defendants were acquitted. But the prosecutor said yesterday he would appeal against the acquittal of Angeliki Sotiropoulou, Koufodinas’s 40-year-old wife, and Yiannis Serifis, 64, both of whom were released because of lack of evidence and by a 2-1 vote. The judges accepted the prosecutor’s proposals almost in their entirety, with some small exceptions. They also accepted his proposal to allow schoolteacher Costas Telios to be released pending his appeal against a 25-year sentence. Telios has been suffering from a nervous ailment. Yotopoulos, who has denied any involvement with N17, yesterday repeated his claim that he had been set up. «The trial was in no way just. It was a theatrical show dictated by the Americans,» he said immediately after the sentencing. «At no point, and from no bit of evidence, from no action, did it arise that I was the moral instigator – not even a member. No DNA was found, nor my fingerprint at any fixed point. The judiciary is not independent,» he said. He recalled what he had said at the beginning of the trial. «My opinion of Mr Margaritis proved right. He is too polite to be honest. I scored a bull’s eye,» he said. «So far as it concerns me, the decision is ridiculous. I will appeal wherever I can.» In a dramatic twist, Savvas Xeros, one of three brothers convicted in the trial, issued a statement on Tuesday expressing penitence. He was the man whose confessions helped break the gang but had changed his stance during the trial, claiming his testimony was coerced. Now he said he was asking for God’s mercy. «Now that the trial is over I can say that I am in pain and distraught over every murder, every tear, every cry, for every sigh that I have caused,» he wrote. «I sinned in heaven and on earth and God’s love was not withdrawn from me. And that is where I place all my hopes.»