Greek publisher tried over alleged Swiss bank list

November 1, 2012

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — A magazine publisher went on trial Thursday for printing a list allegedly naming Greeks with bank accounts in Switzerland. The list has touched off a fierce debate in nearly bankrupt Greece about whether governments used it to check for possible tax evasion.

Journalist Costas Vaxevanis has been charged with breaching privacy laws, a misdemeanor. An Athens court was expected to rule on the case later in the day.

Vaxevanis was arrested after making public last week the names of more than 2,000 people who allegedly had HSBC accounts several years ago. He argues that he did so in the public interest.

The list was allegedly provided to Greek tax authorities — for use in investigating possible tax evasion — in 2010 by Christine Lagarde, then France's finance minister who now heads the International Monetary Fund.

The published names were allegedly taken from data on 24,000 HSBC customers that the bank reported stolen that year, potentially exposing many international clients to prosecution by tax authorities if they failed to declare the assets in their home countries. The bank said a former IT employee with HSBC, identified by French authorities, had obtained the information.

Greek officials did not act on the list, citing legal issues since it had been leaked by the bank employee. The country has for decades faced severe difficulties in addressing rampant tax evasion, and the issue of the alleged list — even though banking abroad is legal — has touched a raw nerve for Greeks hit by nearly three years of harsh income cuts and tax hikes.

Vaxevanis argued Thursday that a guilty ruling in his case would be used to excuse what he called the "criminal liabilities" of the officials who sat on the information.

"It is likely this trial will issue a guilty verdict so they can say 'you see? This is why we didn't publish (the list). It was a privacy matter,'" he told journalists during a recess. "This will be one more political game which will damage the country globally because of the issue of freedom of speech."

After lying largely forgotten for more than two years, the so-called Lagarde List resurfaced with a vengeance weeks ago, when lists of politicians purported to be under investigation for tax fraud were printed in sections of the press.

After a frantic flurry to locate a copy, former Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos, now head of a center-left junior partner in Greece's shaky governing coalition, located the Lagarde List on a USB drive and forwarded it to Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.

The reports triggered an ongoing judicial investigation into why authorities took no action on the information.