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Journalist who embarrassed Greeks with Swiss bank accounts is acquitted

From Diana Magnay, CNN
November 2, 2012 -- Updated 0020 GMT (0820 HKT)
  • NEW: "People had been blackmailed ... doesn't this need to stop?" Vaxevanis says
  • Kostas Vaxevanis has been acquitted of violating Greece's data protection law
  • His magazine published a list of names of about 2,000 Greeks with Swiss bank accounts
  • Authorities face questions over why there has been no probe of possible tax evasion

Athens, Greece (CNN) -- A Greek investigative journalist was acquitted of criminal charges Thursday after he published the names of about 2,000 Greeks with Swiss bank accounts, a move that embarrassed the country's political and business elite.

Kostas Vaxevanis, the editor of the magazine Hot Doc, was charged with violating Greece's data protection law. He was arrested on Sunday, a day after his magazine published the list, and acquitted Thursday night, defense attorney Harris Ikonomopoulos said.

The names were known as the "Lagarde list," because they were given by Christine Lagarde, then French finance minister, to her Greek counterpart in August 2010. Lagarde is now the International Monetary Fund chief. Vaxevanis defended his decision to publish on the grounds that the data came from a reliable source and that it was in the public interest for it to be released.

"In the last two years various names had been thrown about," he told reporters outside the courthouse Thursday. "People had been blackmailed. Fake lists were circulated. The political system is being destabilized. There was a fake list that had half the Greek lawmakers' names on it. Doesn't this need to stop?"

While it is not illegal to hold a Swiss bank account, and there is no evidence that anyone broke the law, suspicions are high in Greece that some of those named in the list may have opened the accounts to avoid paying taxes to the Greek state.

Greek media questioned whether the failure to investigate those named for possible tax evasion might have been the result of an attempt by politicians to protect a wealthy elite. A parliamentary committee is looking into why no investigation was carried out either under former Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou or his successor, Evangelos Venizelos.

The ministers said the data had been handed over to the fraud office, but officials there said they had never been formally instructed to investigate who on the list was or wasn't dodging taxes. French and German authorities, who were given similar lists, did pursue some of those named for alleged tax evasion.

Greek authorities now face public suspicion that they tried to shoot the messenger by sending Vaxevanis immediately to court, while for two years they effectively sat on the list and took no action. Ikonomopoulos said his client should have been praised for his courage in bringing the list to light rather than being taken to court.

"The Greek government needs to investigate this list and any other lists they may have their hands on," Ikonomopoulos told CNN.

"But first and foremost, the Greek government needs to reinstate effective governance, checks and balances and accountability and transparency mechanisms, in order for whatever is done to be productive," he said. "We can't afford any more injustice, we can't afford any more mismanagement and we can certainly not afford lies that are smearing public life and are delegitimizing the public personnel in total at a time we need to work together."

CNN's Florence Davey-Attlee contributed to this report.

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