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Leniency Laws Blamed for Mati Deadly Fire Defendants Walking Away

ATHENS – None of the defendants accused of a range of charges for alleged failures and coverup of their role in the July 23, 2018 wildfires that killed 104 people were jailed because of penal code changes passed by a former SYRIZA government.

Despite thousands of pages of evidence and reports officials were trying to bury their alleged wrongdoings, 15 of 21 defendants were cleared outside and only five former high-ranking officials were convicted – but allowed to pay fines.

Nobody was jailed, leading to outrage in the courtroom from the families of victims who burned or were smoked to death, including 26 people huddled on a seaside cliff, unable to reach the water. They included 9-year-old girl twins.

After the tragedy, videos grabbing the world’s attention as the fire started by an elderly man Konstantinos Angelopoulos, who was burning trash, it was revealed that SYRIZA didn’t have a disaster response plan.

Reports also said the fire department failed miserably while police directed cars into the flames and water-dropping aircraft weren’t dispatched, then prime minister Alexis Tsipras taking only “political responsibility.”

His government passed laws that made such crimes misdemeanors instead of felonies and the five convicted got a maximum 5-year jail sentence but avoided going to prison by paying fines of 38,000 euros ($40,716) instead.

That led to howls of anger in the courtroom when the verdicts were announced, some families screaming “Shame!” their lawyers said, as no municipal nor former SYRIZA officials are going to jail.

Four of the five who were convicted were found guilty of manslaughter and causing bodily injuries by negligence were found guilty of misdemeanors, even though these were committed repeatedly.

Judges and prosecutors told Kathimerini the court may not have had the legal discretion to impose a sentence of more than five years, but was not compelled to let the guilty buy out their jail time.

The Public Prosecutor’s office will decide whether to appeal the lenient sentences although the case has dragged on so long that the statute of limitations could expire, preventing any retrials.

The five convicted were Sotiris Terzoudis, then chief of the Fire Brigade, Vasilis Matthaiopoulos, then deputy chief of the Fire Brigade, Ioannis Fostieris, then commander of the Unified Coordination Center for Operations, Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos, head of the fire brigade at the fire, Haralambos Hionis, then commander of the Fire Department of East Attica, and Angelopoulos.

The six defendants found guilty of manslaughter over the fires but set free with fines were tried on the basis of older and more lenient regulations of the Criminal Code, Justice Minister Giorgos Floridis said.

Speaking to national broadcaster ERT and journalist Giorgos Kouvaras, he said that if the new Criminal Code that was voted recently in parliament were in effect at the trial, the foreseen sentences would be 10 to 20 years.

He didn’t explain why the ruling New Democracy, now in its second term after twice routing SYRIZA in 2019 and 2023 elections, waited almost five years to tighten the laws.

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