Former PM’s testimony at the Tsochatzopoulos trial: “I didn’t know anything… Akis’s recommendations were decisive”

(The Tempers flared on Wednesday during the trial of former defence minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos on charges of corruption linked to arms procurement contracts during testimony provided by former Prime Minister Costas Simitis.

At one point Tsochatzopoulos demanded to be allowed to direct questions at Simitis. Banging his hand against the table, Tsochatzopoulos raised his voice, protesting his innocence saying, “There was no bribery, it is a false charge.” The former defence minister became so animated that the court bailiffs moved to restrain him while the presiding judge urged him to remain seated.

Simitis responded saying to his former minister, “I wanted to say the following on that. As was proven from the preliminary court proceedings in the Defence Ministry all manner of things were going on. You should have reported that.” Simitis left the court soon afterwards.

Simitis claimed that he had no knowledge at the time of any illegal activities by his close associate and minister and added that he is saddened because these travesties happened under his premiership

Earlier, the former prime minister had left Tsochatzopoulos exposed when he testified that it was possible that his former defence minister had been bribed. However he repeatedly said that he had not known of such corruption at the time, but was reacting to information that had emerged in recent years.

However Simitis ultimately seemed convinced that there had indeed been large scale bribery at the Defense Ministry while he was prime minister saying, “These travesties took place under my premiership when our efforts were to upgrade and modernize the country.”

Simitis’s testimony

The former prime minister gave his testimony standing a few feet in front of Tsochatzopoulos who was sitting in the dock. On taking the witness stand the former prime minister told the court, “I came willingly to help justice be served but I do not know anything about the illegal acts of the accused.” He went on to describe the defence needs of the country following the Imia crisis (when Turkey and Greece came close to war in January 1996 over a dispute over small uninhabited islands in the Aegean) and of Akis Tsochatzopoulos’s role in arms procurement decisions. He revealed how when he subsequently recommended cutting the arms budget he encountered significant resistance both from the defence minister and sections of the press.

The Imia crisis forced us to buy weapons

Simitis:’ You will be asking why we gave those funds and why the procurements were necessary. You will remember that before I won the confidence vote, we did not have the means to intervene in the Imia case and the helicopter crashed and those kids were killed because it was flying for more hours than it should have. So when I asked the head of the Hellenic National Defense General Staff if commandos could retake the Imia [islets] he said no because they would have to go via Thessaloniki and it would take 6 hours for them to get there. I have written about it in our book. The then leadership of the Armed Forces told me that the difference between us and Turkey was great at the level of engagement and that we should have the ability, in the event of a clash to hold them until the allies could intervene. KYSEA (the committee responsible for approving arms expenditure) therefore took the decision and we bought 60 F16s, 15 Mirages, 4 submarines, helicopters etc. At a diplomatic level the Helsinki decision was taken”.

“I recommended that new arms purchases be suspended and the budget be reduced by 1 trillion drachmas. Mr Tsochatzopoulos disagreed as he believed that improving the country’s defenses was important and [argued] that the arms programs did not exceed 5% of GDP and was only at 4%. I decided to the contrary and there were major protests from Mr Tsochatzopoulos and the press . New Democracy also agreed with the press. Eventually KYSEA met and reduced the arms programs by 35 billion euros. That is, the arms procurement programs happened under the pressure of the Imia crisis and were reduced when the element of necessary defense improvements was no longer present.

Could the Minister have been bribed?

Simitis: “Since it happened, could it have happened? It is worth asking, given there was so much background work, how [the bribery] could ultimately happen. But here you are not coming to buy an Opel car. It is auditable only by the Defence Committees. But here it appears – I won’t say that it has been proven and annoy the counsel- that there were payments at three levels: deputy director, general secretary and minister at the highest level, so given that they had colluded anything is possible. …… I learnt that two of the accused had confessed”.

Judge: Do you know if Mr Tsochatzopoulos was bribed?

Simitis: “I don’t know, I told you, I don’t know anything… Akis’s recommendations were decisive”

The former PM recalled that at the height of his power Akis Tsochatzopoulos was one of the most influential officials in PASOK and on the political scene in general, noting that he had even served as acting prime minister. As such he was trusted by Simitis.

From ’76 Akis was PASOK’s secretary and for 20 plus years the number two person in the leadership of PASOK.

Simitis angered by Akis’s lawyer

Costas Simitis grew increasingly irritated with a series of questions from Tsochatzopoulos’s attorney asking whether the former minister had been effective in is position.

Wagging his finger he said, “Do you want my opinion? I will say it. It is of no importance what else he did, if he did what he is accused of doing that was wrong.”

Simitis went on to maintain that he did not know of the alleged corruption at the time, “Nothing came to my attention. But that it did not come to my attention does not mean it did not happen.”

“If there was a trace of misconduct I would have intervened to correct it. If I had received such information I would have looked into it. I was very strict with my colleagues. I had removed two deputy ministers for whom I had heard rumours… I referred [earlier] to bribery on the basis of the first court decision. There was no such information [then]. Whenever there was, I also swiftly intervened. If what is said to have happened, happened it is a travesty and it should not have happened. It is disgraceful.”