ATHENS (Reuters) - With Greece in political uproar, a former top aide to the prime minister tried to shield him on Thursday from a scandal over the prosecution of far-right political opponents.
The official, Takis Baltakos, resigned on Wednesday over the furor caused by a video, leaked online, in which he talks to a senior member of the far-right Golden Dawn party and discusses a criminal investigation of its members.
Speaking about the affair on Thursday, Baltakos did not deny that in the video he implied the government had tried to exert pressure on judges to jail Golden Dawn politicians. But he said he made the comments for tactical reasons, and Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was not aware of his contacts with the party.
“No, there was no reason for him to know,” Baltakos said.
The video has caused outrage, partly because it calls into question the independence of the judiciary and partly because it gives the appearance of secret negotiations between the government and a party it has branded a pariah.
Samaras’ conservative government has a majority of just two seats in the 300-member parliament. It had been basking in the glow of its latest deal with the European Union and International Monetary Fund, part of a 240 billion euro ($329 billion) bailout agreed in 2010 and 2012 to rescue it from a debt crisis.
The video, which appears to have been secretly recorded, shows Baltakos talking to a person off screen, later identified as Golden Dawn’s spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris.
When asked why Golden Dawn members of parliament have been detained, Baltakos makes a hand gesture representing a phone call. Asked if Justice Minister Charalambos Athanassiou and Police Minister Nikos Dendias made the call, he replies: “Who else?”
Both ministers have denied any involvement in the case.
Police and judges have been investigating for months charges that Golden Dawn lawmakers and its members were involved in a series of violent attacks, including the killing of a left-wing rapper in September that led to protests across the country.
Six Golden Dawn lawmakers including its leader have been detained pending trial.
“I was talking to Golden Dawn MPs, telling them a few things they wanted to hear, to maintain contact,” Baltakos told Realnews radio. “I did it to serve a specific purpose. We had to be aware of their thoughts, strategies and moves,” he said.
The anti-immigrant Golden Dawn rode a wave of anger against harsh austerity measures to become the third largest political force at elections in 2012. It has denied any wrongdoing and accused the government of a politically motivated crackdown.
“We couldn’t leave 500,000 Greeks trapped by Golden Dawn without doing anything. None of these voters is a Nazi,” Baltakos said, referring to the voters of Golden Dawn.
The government has denied accusations it influenced magistrates in any way, saying “justice is independent”. The main opposition, the leftist Syriza party, has called on the government to resign.
A top prosecutor ordered an investigation into the video on Thursday - not into the content of the conversation, but to assess whether it was recorded without Baltakos’ consent, which would count as a felony.
Kasidiaris presented a copy of what he called a transcript of the video to parliament on Wednesday, saying it proved the prosecution was a government conspiracy.
Lawmakers later voted to strip legal immunity from more Golden Dawn lawmakers, clearing the way for another round of criminal charges against them.
Golden Dawn, which uses a swastika-like emblem and whose leader has denied the Holocaust, rejects the neo-Nazi label. If its members are convicted on charges of participation in a criminal organization, they face up to 10 years in jail.
Reporting by Renee Maltezou; Editing by Mark Trevelyan