Greek Former Defense Minister Sits in Same Prison Cell as Monk Ephraim

Greek Former Defense Minister Sits in Same Prison Cell as Monk Ephraim

ATHENS – Former Defense Minister and a founding member of the PASOK Socialist party Akis Tsochatzopoulos – who has been charged in connection with a money laundering scheme prosecutors said he used to hide millions of euros in secret payments from contract deals ranging from submarines to missiles – is in Kordyallos Prison. He is believed to be in the same cell used to briefly incarcerate Ephraim, the former chief monk of the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos who was implicated in a controversial land swap deal.

Tsochatzopoulos spent Easter weekend in a police holding cell. Investigating Magistrate Gavriil Mallis rejected the pleas of Tsochatzopoulos’ lawyers to give him more time to prepare his case, saying that he was not a flight risk, and handed in his passport to prevent him from leaving the country.

His jailing came the same day that three others implicated in the case testified: his first cousin Nikolaos Zigras, linked to three offshore companies that allegedly laundered money accrued by Tsochatzopoulos in kickbacks from armaments sales through the purchase of high-end real estate; Efrosini Lambropoulou, an accountant and representative of one of the three offshore firms owned by the former defense minister; and Giorgos Sachpatzidis, a businessman also connected with Tsochatzopoulos’ dealings. They, too, were remanded in custody in the jail.

Protothema reported that Mallis believed Tsochatzopoulos, the first high-ranking politician prosecuted for corruption during a reign of brutal austerity that is punishing Greeks with big pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions, would try to flee the country and could commit other criminal offenses if let free. During eight hours of testifying the day before, Tsochatzopoulos said that the Government Council for Foreign Affairs and Defence, KYSEA, approved this purchase in 2000 and then, when he became Defense Minister, authorized him to proceed. He asked that its members be allowed testify but it was denied.

He also said he served only until 2001, but that the submarine contract is still being carried out under others in the government. Additionally, he says he is being charged in a case that was closed eight years ago by a Parliament Inquiry Committee which did not find any incriminating evidence against him, although another Parliamentary committee last year voted to indict him. He stated that that the arrest warrant against him is illegal because he has never been unwilling to cooperate with the authorities. The scandal is widening and reportedly involves at least 14 more people, including businessman Asterios Oikonomidis, who is already being held in custody, as well as the former minister’s wife and daughter.

Tsochatzopoulos has been living a lavish lifestyle, including the purchase of a $1.8 million house in the so-called “Billionaire’s Alley,” a pedestrian walkway under the Acropolis, and held his wedding reception at a luxury hotel in Paris. With anger rising against politicians over austerity, the case has galvanized Greek opinion even further. The Vice-Mayor of Trikkaia, Thodoros Spanos, said he wants Tsochatzopoulos to return a medal of the city that was given to him in 2002.

“I hope he has not turned it into a bar of gold,” he added. Tsochatzopoulos received it for making promises that were not delivered and included land swap deals involving army property.

It is unusual for a Greek politician to be charged with a crime as none have, despite a plethora of scandals over the last decade. Even Ephraim was recently released and returned to Mt. Athos. Fueling the rage against political leaders is the sense that they are favored and above the law, although with elections looming on May 6 to elect a new leader, some have said the arrest was a campaign ploy to detract attention from the austerity measures that have many Greeks fleeing the two ruling parties of PASOK and their bitter rival, New Democracy Conservatives.