High-level corruption sentences surprise Greeks

06/03/2013

Politicians are sentenced to jail time for corruption offences as the government gets tough on wrongdoers.

By Andy Dabilis for Southeast European Times in Athens -- 06/03/13

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Former Thessaloniki Mayor Vassilis Papageorgopoulos (centre) is escorted to prison on February 27th. [AFP]

Greece's recent crackdown on corruption has led to a life sentence for a former mayor and an eight-year term for a former defence minister. While it's rare in Greece for political leaders and the rich to face prosecution, that could be changing, analysts said.

The convictions of former Thesaloniki Mayor Vassilis Papageorgopoulos, who embezzled 18 million euros, and former Defense Minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos, who stole as much as 1 billion euros from defense contracts, show that the government may be getting tough on corruption.

"The prosecutions could mark a critical turning point in establishing a new public ethic amongst the political class and those who feed off of it. The cynics have historical experience in their favour," Stan Draenos, former historian at the Andreas Papandreou Foundation in Athens, told SETimes.

"It is up to the government to prove the cynics wrong by pursuing assiduously the many suspicious cases under investigation, including those of corrupt tax officials," he added.

Tsochatzopoulos, who has been in detention for 11 months, faces more trials for money-laundering, embezzling and other charges after being convicted of failing to declare the full amount of his wealth as required by law.

Besides Papageorgopoulos, Thessaloniki's former general secretary, Michalis Lemoussias, and former treasurer Panagiotis Saxonis were also given life sentences and prosecutors are building cases against 16 other former officials.

Papageorgopoulos, who Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, the New Democracy conservative party leader once declared was "an honest man," was a party stalwart for years, while Tsochatzopoulos was a veteran of the rival PASOK Socialists before being ousted.

The list of scandals in Greece since it entered the Eurozone in 2001 is long indeed, but until recently, no high-ranking figures were pursued.

"Corruption is perhaps the most constant parameter of the Greek crisis. As long as the Greek judiciary system makes progress, confidence will return. But more cases need to be investigated," George Tzogopoulos, a research fellow at the Athens-based Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, told SETimes.

But the life sentence for embezzlement in the Papageorgopoulos case surprised many who have come to expect impunity and leniency.

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"I doubt that this excessive show of sanctioning capacity … will stand," Dimitris Sotiropoulos, an associate political science professor at the University of Athens told SETimes. He said it was an "extreme penalty."

But there was little sympathy on the streets, even though Papageorgopoulos and Tsochatzopoulos claimed they were victims of political persecutions. Many Greeks, though, are glad that something has been done.

"There's a sense in Greece that everyone in the government steals money." Ileana Bialaki, 18, a University of Athens student told SETimes. "If there's punishment, there's hope and justice."

"I'm quite surprised," Ilias Papageorgiou, 48, an economic consultant in Athens, told SETimes. "It's a good sign, but it's not enough."

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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