Greek journalist Kostas Vaxevanis was acquitted of charges that he had breached public privacy by releasing a list of Greek investors who, he claimed, should have been investigated for tax evasion.
The Thursday verdict was met with cheers from his many supporters, who had come to see the 11-hour trial as a referendum on the indebted Greek government’s failure to reform its deeply flawed and poorly enforced tax policies.
“A junior court judge had the courage to go against the prosecutor's office, which created all the fuss in the first place, to listen to society, to see the results of all this activity surrounding the revelation of the list and, of course, to see the truth,” said Vaxevanis to Al-Jazeera after he was pronounced innocent.
The story began in 2010, when a list of 2,059 Greek citizens who held accounts with a Swiss HSBC bank was leaked by an HSBC employee and made it to the desk of French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde. She then handed the list to Greek Finance Minister Giorgios Papakonstantinou, ostensibly so that those listed might be investigated for tax evasion.
The motley crew of investors on the so-called Lagarde List, ranging from students and housewives to politicians and wealthy businesspeople, had not necessarily done anything wrong. But in Greece, where the tax code is enforced inconsistently and where corruption and tax evasion are rife, it was quite possible that some of those listed were guilty of criminal activity.
But the list was never investigated, with some Greek officials explaining that the names had been obtained illegally, and others later claiming that the list had simply gotten lost.
Vaxevanis, who says he came upon the Lagarde List via an anonymous source, published it in his magazine Hot Doc on Oct. 27. He was quickly arrested, but fellow media workers and much of the public cried foul.
“Greek people have known for two years now that there is a list of people who are rich, rightly or wrongly, and they are untouchable,” he said during the trial, according to Reuters. “At the same time, the [Greek people] are on the other side, they are suffering cuts."
Greece is sorely in need of unpaid tax revenues amounting to about US$77.8 billion, which, if paid, could cover a sixth of the national debt. This adds to a growing sense among middle-class and poor Greek citizens that the government has failed to address the criminal activity at the root of Greece’s -- and, by extension, the euro zone’s -- crippling debt problem.
Vaxevanis could have faced anywhere from one to three years behind bars if he was convicted. Instead, Judge Malia Volika pronounced him innocent on Thursday evening without any further explanation of the legalities.
Vaxevanis, who had argued from the beginning that the charges were politically motivated, was triumphant.
"This ruling is not only right, but it frees journalism. Journalists in Greece have been held hostage for a very long time,” he said, according to Reuters.
"This ruling gives our colleagues the possibility to do their jobs without handcuffs."