Just when it appears that things cannot get worse they do. We were all so absorbed by witnessing the country’s quickening slide into the deep hole of debt, and the collapse of productivity, that we barely paid any attention to the long-simmering Siemens bribery scandal. Now it has come back to test the very limits of our political and judicial system.
Both the New Democracy government and the opposition PASOK party were content to let the judiciary drag its feet after German authorities discovered in late 2006 that industrial giant Siemens had operated a huge international network of slush funds and had paid bribes to officials in Greece in order to secure contracts. Amid interminable inquiries and sloppy correspondence with German officials, the Greek authorities marked time while Germany investigated, tried and sentenced the German protagonists of the scandal. The claims that officials of both major Greek parties (at least) had received bribes was the probable reason for this judicial inertia. But, to everyone’s consternation, Siemens HQ had hired an American legal firm to investigate all the parameters of the scandal. And so, the small group of people at the center – both among former Siemens Hellas officials and those on the side of the Greek state and political apparatus – ran a serious danger of being exposed.
And yet, everything appeared to be going according to the Greek way of handling scandals: first, saturation coverage – enough to sow confusion so that no one knows what the story is all about; second, the cultivation of a sense that “everyone does it,” meaning no one is accountable; the judiciary lets the issue drag on for so long that the public (aided by the very fickle news media) forgets what it is all about; time runs out, the case is filed away; everyone goes back to business as usual.
But then the protagonists did what a good Greek protagonist should never do: they blinked. Michalis Christoforakos, the former head of Siemens Hellas made a run for it, turning up in Germany instead of keeping the date he had with the prosecutor on Monday. Then, on Friday, it turned out that another former executive, Christos Karavelas, had also fled the country. It was immediately revealed that the Uruguayan authorities had tipped off the Greeks that Karavelas had transferred millions of dollars there for the purchase of a luxury home. Suddenly the drab routine of a cover-up had been broken.
That’s when things went haywire. The investigating judge suddenly ordered the arrest of two other defendants (one a former Siemens executive the other a former senior official of OTE telecom), just hours after both were given an extension of several days to prepare their testimony. The two claim that their arrest and the judge’s procedures are irregular and that they will refer the matter to the European Court of Human Rights. In addition, the investigating magistrate jailed the wife and eldest daughter of the fugitive Karavelas and ordered the two youngest to put up bail of one million euros each – which they are unlikely to do as their accounts have been frozen.
The issue has reached a point of hysteria in the political clash ahead of Sunday’s elections: PASOK blames ND for allegedly abetting the suspects, whereas the government accuses PASOK of involvement in the bribe-taking. This political ugliness is predictable. What is most frightening is that the judiciary, in its zeal to make up for its past lapses, is riding roughshod over the concept of due process, undermining the rights of every Greek.
Milestones&Footnotes, Athens Plus, 5 June, 2009