ATHENS: A prominent journalist who published the names of more than 2,000 wealthy Greeks with Swiss bank accounts appeared in court Monday to stand trial on charges of violating data privacy laws.
Costas Vaxevanis, editor of the “Hot Doc” weekly magazine, was arrested at the weekend for publishing the “Lagarde List” that French authorities gave to Athens in 2010 so that the account holders could be investigated for possible tax evasion.
The list and the accompanying saga of how it was passed from one senior official to the next – misplaced at one point without anyone apparently taking action – has riveted Greeks angry at a political class seen as unwilling to crack down on the wealthy elite.
Vaxevanis’s trial was adjourned soon after starting until Thursday.
He could face up to two years in prison if convicted.
“I was doing my job in the name of the public interest,” Vaxevanis told a crowd of supporters outside court. “Journalism is revealing the truth when everyone else is trying to hide it.”
The list of 2,059 Greek account holders at HSBC in Switzerland features dozens of prominent business figures, including a handful of shipping tycoons, companies and two politicians.
It also includes a painter, an actress and many listed as architects, doctors, lawyers, and housewives.
The center-left Ta Nea newspaper reprinted the list Monday, devoting 10 pages to the accounts which were said to hold about 2 billion euros until 2007. However, the daily said it was not leaping to any conclusions about the list’s “content nor the connotations it evokes in a large part of the public.”
It did not say why it had decided to reprint the list and stressed there was no evidence linking anyone on the list to tax evasion.
“Ta Nea is publishing the list today. Will they be prosecuted?” Vaxevanis wrote on his Twitter account. “Today, it’s not Hot Doc that’s on trial but press freedom in Greece, and truth.”
Vaxevanis criticized Greek media – which apart from Ta Nea have avoided any mention of those on the list – for failing to cover his magazine’s revelations extensively.
The list has been named after Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund who was the French finance minister when it was handed over.
Hot Doc said the list was sent to it anonymously and authorities have not confirmed its authenticity.
The controversy has highlighted divisions in the near-bankrupt country now in its fifth year of recession, where austerity measures have taken a heavy toll on poorer sections of society. Greece’s international lenders – with whom Athens hopes to strike a deal on an austerity package in a few days – have long demanded the country do more to fight evasion.
Opposition leader Alexis Tsipras and at least one lawmaker in the Greek coalition has called for charges against Vaxevanis to be dropped, ridiculing prosecutors for going after the journalist rather than those on the list.
“It is unacceptable that in Greece, which has been on its knees in recent years, tax evaders are left undisturbed and those who conceal possible evasion are not prosecuted but those who make revelations are,” Tsipras said.
Greek authorities say there is no evidence that those included in the list have broken the law, but former ministers have been criticized for failing to make any checks on them.
In testimony before a parliamentary committee last week, George Papaconstantinou, who was finance minister when the list was first handed to Athens, said he gave about 20 names from the list to the financial crimes squad for checks.
He also said he gave a CD containing the list to one of his aides when he stepped down from the post, but that it then appeared to have been misplaced.
Evangelos Venizelos, leader of the PASOK Socialists and also a former finance minister, said the financial crime squad chief gave him a USB flash drive containing a list a year ago, but he was not sure if this was the original.
Earlier this month, Venizelos said he had handed the drive to Prime Minister Antonis Samaras when he realized no other copy of it existed.
The Samaras government has not commented publicly on the list. A government official said that looking into the list was the job of the justice system since the flash drive had been turned over to investigators.