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Politics

Greek Newspaper Says SYRIZA Covered Up Deadly 2018 Fires Response

July 19, 2020

ATHENS – The then-ruling Radical Left SYRIZA tried to block investigators from revealing the government's mishandling and attempted cover-up of a shambolic response to July 23, 2018 wildfires that killed 102 people and nearly wiped out the seaside village of Mati, the newspaper Kathimerini alleged in an investigative report.

With suits being brought by families of some victims and independent reports showing the government at the time had no disaster plan and bungled the response so bad it increased the death rate – which SYRIZA downplayed – the paper said it had evidence proving then-Premier Alexis Tsipras' administration tried to hide wrongdoing.

The paper said it had turned up testimony indicating attempts to prevent the Greek Fire Service officer appointed by the First Instance Prosecutor’s office to look into the case, from doing his job.

Investigator Dimitris Liotsios filed formal complaints against former chief Fire Service Chief Vassilis Matthaiopoulos, alleging threats and blackmail to force the truth about the chaotic response to be kept hidden, the paper said.

Liotsios also submitted an audio recording of the most damning of these conversations. “If you write about your superiors having any blame, we will close ranks and tear you apart,” Mattaipoulos allegedly told him.

Using a string of profanities, Matthaiopoulos is also heard chiding Liotsios for demanding documents signed by then Attica Regional Governor Rena Dourou – facing stalled prosecution for her handling of the disaster – the forestry and fire service, accusing him of lacking the expertise to assess their content.

“Keep it simple, or they’ll take you for an idiot… Five little things: Wind, combustible matter, a mixture of pine trees and houses, anarchic, unplanned construction. And the result was that the fire got out of control in an hour… Five lines, five words, and hand it in. And the prosecutors? Some people will get the pie and you’ll get f…d. That’s how the game is played in Greece,” he told the investigator.

Court documents  showed Liotsios ran into a stonewall of obstacles from officials trying to prevent him from revealing the government's failures, including frm fire service officials challenging his authority and rank, the paper said.

The day after Liotsos’ report was submitted to the head of the First Instance Prosecutors’ Office, meanwhile, the head of the Athens' prosecutor's office Ilias Zagoraios was apparently ordered by former Supreme Court prosecutor Xeni Dimitriou to not release the findings until an internal probe that could take months.

When that was reported at the time Dimitriou claimed that her orders had been misinterpreted and blamed others, a common tactic in Greece to prevent being accused of any wrongdoing.

Based on the report, the prosecutor’s office issued charges in March 2019 against 20 state and local authority officials for a range of mistakes and oversights but none have been taken to court yet, another common problem in Greece that regularly sees cases drag on for years until forgotten or downplayed.

Liotsos' report was given to investigative magistrate Athanasios Marneris with the paper saying he, too, ran into defiance from Fire Service officials who refused to hand over incident reports and tried to replace him in September 2019 on the pretext that he was taking too long to complete his probe, which is what they wanted.  

The arson investigative department of the Hellenic Fire Service said the fire was accidentally started by a 65-year-old man burning wood in Daou, Penteli, with a video showing him doing ig.

He was charged with manslaughter, causing criminal harm through negligence, negligent arson but was not named under Greek privacy laws to protect him and with no indication he is being prosecuted further two years after the fires brought destruction.

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