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Greek journalist in court over Swiss data leak

Published: 29 Oct 2012 12:59 GMT+01:00
Updated: 29 Oct 2012 17:22 GMT+01:00

A Greek investigative journalist was sent for trial on Monday charged with breach of privacy after publishing names from an alleged list of Swiss bank accounts that the Athens government has been accused of trying to cover up.

Costas Vaxevanis, a veteran television journalist who is editor of the "Hot Doc" magazine, appeared in court in Athens after the list was published in its Saturday issue.

It included the names of more than 2,000 Greeks, allegedly from a controversial list of HSBC account holders that was originally leaked by a bank employee and passed to Greece in 2010 by France's then finance minister Christine Lagarde.

Vaxevanis's trial will open on November 1st. He faces a maximum three-year jail sentence if convicted.

"The prosecutor's office wants to protects tax evaders. I'm just doing my duty," the 46-year-old told reporters outside the courtroom where a small crowd of supporters including leftist lawmakers had gathered.

The data has been the subject of intense discussion, as Greek officials have claimed the original list had gone missing, while some citizens have clamoured for the government to use it to crack down on potential tax cheats as the country grapples with a massive debt crisis.

Vaxevanis says he received the information in an anonymous letter whose sender claimed to have received it from a politician.

Among those named on a list reprinted by top-selling Greek newspaper Ta Nea on Monday are prominent businessmen, shipowners, lawyers, doctors, journalists and a former minister, as well as companies and "housewives".

The speed at which a warrant was issued on Saturday for Vaxevanis's arrest -- usually seen in the case of dangerous criminals or extremists -- has been criticized as excessive.

"Costas Vaxevanis is not a dangerous criminal," media rights group Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.

"This excessive procedure supports the blackout which the authorities seem to be trying to impose."

Vaxevanis was arrested at a friend's home in Athens on Sunday by plainclothes officers in unmarked vehicles, reportedly after giving a radio interview.

He insisted on having an associate film part of the arrest procedure.   

"I revealed the truth that they were hiding. If anyone is accountable before the law then it is those ministers who hid the list, lost it and said it didn't exist. I'm a journalist and I did my job," he said before he was taken away.

The first recipient of the data, Greece's then finance minister George Papaconstantinou, told parliament on Wednesday that he did not know what had happened to the original version of the so-called "Lagarde list" after the French minister who is now head of the International Monetary Fund.

Greece's current Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras also said he had asked France to re-send the list.

Greek officials have long maintained that the information was illegally obtained and cannot be used in the battle against tax evasion. Deputy Finance Minister George Mavraganis recently called the list "industrial espionage".

But mounting anger against a new round of harsh austerity cuts imposed on Greece by its international creditors has put pressure on the government to look for the list and use it to crack down on potential tax dodgers.

The EU Commission said it was not able to comment on the case itself.

"We can use the occasion to recall that it is essential that the fight against tax evasion in Greece is intensified," said Simon O'Connor, spokesman for the EU's economic affairs chief Olli Rehn.

"All possible cases of tax evasion must be fully investigated by the competent authorities."

He said the effective collection of tax revenues was a "question of social justice".

"This is particularly true at a time when many Greeks are being asked to make significant sacrifices in the effort to ensure the sustainabilty of Greece's public finances."

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