ATHENS (Reuters) - A prominent Greek journalist who published the names of more than 2,000 wealthy Greeks with Swiss bank accounts appeared in court on Monday to stand trial for violating data privacy laws in a case which aroused international concern.
Costas Vaxevanis, editor of the “Hot Doc” weekly magazine, was arrested at the weekend for publishing the “Lagarde List” which 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 and misplaced at one point without anyone apparently taking action - has riveted Greeks who are angry with a political class which many believe is 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 Vienna-based Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe expressed concern about the case, including Vaxevanis’s brief arrest on Sunday.
“I am relieved that Vaxevanis was released from custody after a brief detention, and trust that he will now be tried in a transparent manner considering the acute public interest in the case,” OSCE media freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic said.
“It is the responsibility of media as the watchdog of democracy to disclose information in the public interest even if it is considered sensitive by some,” he added in a statement.
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 centre-left Ta Nea newspaper reprinted the list on 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 stressed there was no evidence linking anyone on the list to tax evasion. Vaxevanis has 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. Greek officials have said the list originates from data a former HSBC employee, Herve Falciani, passed on to French authorities.
The details stolen by Falciani found their way into the hands of tax authorities around Europe which, in apparent contrast to their Greek counterparts, have used the data to turn the heat up on their citizens suspected on tax evasion.
Hot Doc says it received the list from an anonymous sender and authorities have not confirmed its authenticity.
More than a dozen of the more prominent figures who appear on the list declined or were unavailable to comment when contacted by Reuters.
A few, however, have come forward to clear their names.
A well-known journalist, Yiorgos Trangas, said he ended up with a Swiss account inadvertently because he had an account with the Midland Bank in Athens that was later bought by HSBC. He said he severed ties with the bank 12 years ago.
“I wonder: how many people on this ‘List’ are former clients like myself? How many names have been stitched together in order to serve various motives?” Trangas wrote on his Facebook page.
“Since I’ve read the list and saw my name on number nine hundred and fifty something, I have come to conclusion that it is...a product, names strung together, and possibly extensively plagiarized. Most importantly, it is unreliable.”
In a separate case, Greek state television suspended two well-known presenters on Monday after they made comments suggesting the public order minister should resign, which the channel said were made without giving him the chance to respond.
The list controversy has highlighted divisions in a 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 and ridiculed 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.
“I gave the original file with the letter accompanying it to my office to keep it. Unfortunately I don’t know where it is,” Papaconstantinou told lawmakers, drawing howls of indignation.
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.
“This is for the Greek justice system to investigate and we must have answers,” the official said. “The Greek government does not interfere with the justice system.”
Writing by Deepa Babington; Additional reporting by Mike Shields in Vienna; editing by David Stamp