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Greek case renews Swiss secrecy issues

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Photo: Liana Bitoli
14:28 CET+01:00
The acquittal by an Athens court of a journalist for publishing the names of 2,059 Greeks on a list of Swiss account holders puts in doubt a planned new tax treaty between Greece and Switzerland.

A Greek court on Thursday acquitted Costas Vaxevanis of breach of privacy in publishing the list in a case that exposed the government in Athens to charges of a cover-up.

Vaxevanis, a 46-year-old veteran television journalist who now publishes a magazine, has insisted he was doing his job and accused ministers responsible for vetting the list for possible tax evasion of doing nothing for two years.

 Vaxevanis, who was arrested on Sunday, was charged with breach of privacy and faced a maximum three-year prison sentence if convicted.

But with his acquittal after a 12-hour hearing new questions are now being raised about the people on the list — many of them prominent business people and politicians — and about Switzerland’s role in aiding tax evasion.

“Before everything, the Swiss must now give us some answers,” said lawyer Zoé Constantopoulou, a member of parliament for Syriza, and Vaxevanis’s defender in court.

“How many are there who have (bank) accounts in Zurich, Lausanne or Geneva?”

The court case has revived popular anger, in a country where austerity reigns, over a loss of tax revenue to public coffers estimated at 40 billion euros, as rich Greeks use banking havens to hide their wealth.

Vaxevanis published a list that had been passed on to the Greek government in 2010 by France’s then finance minister Christine Lagarde, now head of the International Monetary Fund.

It is part of bigger list of foreign account holders at HSBC’s Geneva branch which was stolen by former IT worker Hervé Falciani and forwarded to the French government in 2008.

Falciani was arrested in Spain in July and the Swiss government is seeking his extradition.  

Bern had been hoping to reach a deal with the Greek government over a taxation treaty on the “Rubik” model, Le Temps newspaper reported on Friday.

That would have allowed wealthy Greeks to maintain their secret accounts in Switzerland provided they paid a withholding tax with revenues passed on to Athens.

But the publication of the list on Saturday has stopped such a deal dead in its tracks, Le Temps indicated.

“For the Greek government to negotiate a tax agreement with Bern would become explosive, if not impossible,” a former Greek diplomat told the newspaper.

In the trial of Vaxevanis, Judge Malia Volika declared him innocent of wrongdoing and swept aside the allegations of the prosecutor.

Calling for his conviction, the prosecutor charged that the journalist had “publicly ridiculed a series of people, you have delivered these people to a society that is thirsty for blood."

But the ruling was met with applause, while Vaxevanis told Volika: "I thank you
very much Madam Judge."

As he left the courtroom, the journalist said: "I did what all journalists would have done."

During the trial, Vaxevanis stressed that he was obliged to publish the list.

"It is my job to publish this list, even if my father were on the list, I would have published it," he said.

Among those on the list are prominent businessmen, shipowners, lawyers, doctors, journalists and a former minister, as well as companies, housewives and students although no deposit sums were published.
 
Several media workers also testified on behalf of Vaxevanis, including the head of the International Federation of Journalists, Jim Bumelha, who called the trial an "absurd farce".

"Colleagues from all over the world will be keeping an eye on this,” he told reporters ahead of the verdict.
 
“If something happens to Costas, we will gather all of the forces that we have got, wherever we are, to campaign for his release,"
  

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