ATHENS – Twice rejected in attempts to upgrade charges over July 23, 2018 wildfires that killed 102 people and devastated the seaside village of Mati, investigator Athanasios Marneris is trying again.
His targets are fire brigade and civil protection officials he wants to face felonies over mismanagement of the fire that caught the then-ruling Radical Left SYRIZA asleep at the wheel without a disaster plan and shambolic response.
Marneris submitted a 41-page report to the Athens Prosecutor’s Office, said Kathimerini, which he said had new evidence showing criminal negligence, especially in the failure to have air operations to slow the flames spread.
Marneris’s request is also backed by victims’ relatives who are demanding punishment of those responsible, including then-officials from the government tat was ousted a year later by the New Democracy Conservatives.
The previous two previous requests to upgrade the charges were unsuccessful, on the grounds that no new evidence was provided but the latest includes a series of allegedly criminal omissions he said added to the death toll.
He reportedly was said to believe those were mainly officials of the Fire Brigade, but also of the Civil Protection in all three stages of the deadly fire, the beginning, the handling of the blaze and the rescue stage that didn’t see Greek Naval or Coast Guard forces deployed in full to take people out of the sea around Mati.
Marneris said these officials "were responsible due to the position they held, to take the necessary actions, but showed complete indifference,” as the case drags on and officials involved saying they were blameless despite the failure to react.
In November, 2019 he reportedly included the testimony of two helicopter pilots who claim that if had they been dispatched to the fire, the outcome may have been different, said Kathimerini.
While some politicians in key appointed positions are being prosecuted, Marneris is also targeting some fire service officers he said weren't at their posts during the fire, especially when Mati was overrun, most of the victims caught there in the firestorm.
In July 2019, a tape recording was said to show a fire chief under SYRIZA ordered a cover-up of the wildfires and more threats against a fire inspector trying to report on the chaotic response.
The recording and its contents were in an investigative report by the newspaper with two male voices heard, reportedly then Deputy Fire Brigade Chief
Vassilis Matthaiopoulos and arson investigator Dimitris Liotsios.
The voice purportedly that of Matthaiopoulos is heard telling Liotsios to “bury the probe” so that the ruling government of then-Premier Alexis Tsipras nor anyone in power would be blamed for failures that raised the death toll.
Liotsios wanted to forward his findings to a prosecutor but ran into a hailstorm of threats he would find his career ended and be sent to a remote posting with Matthaiopoulos saying no help would be sent if a fire broke out.
The fire chief said he had already done that to get even with others during fires in the Mani region of the Peloponnese although it wasn't reported whether, if that happened, that people died because of it.
Matthaiopoulos was promoted to Fire Brigade Chief by the Tsipras government but it wasn't indicated that was a quid pro quo for him trying to protect the Leftists and to stay silent himself about what independent reports said was a shambolic response.
The families of some victims are suing officials and Rena Dourou, former Regional Governor of the Attica prefecture is being prosecuted but hasn't come to court in the two years since then. Liotsios is also suing Matthaiopoulos.
“His only aim was to force me… by threatening to commit illegal acts, to write and submit to the competent investigating authorities a false report,” Liotsios said of Matthaiopoulos, according to the newspaper.
Former New Democracy government spokesman Stelios Petsas said the alleged cover-up had “massive moral, political and criminal ramifications,” as the newspaper stood by its report and said the inquiry will try to determine whether SYRIZA officials and those in the fire service and other state bodies will be added to a list of 20 facing charges of gross negligence in connection with the tragedy.
Marneris had by then also summoned the first of the defendants including former Marathon mayor Ilias Psinakis, the report added, as all politically appointed or elected leaders said nothing that happened was their fault.
At the time, officials said the death toll was high because of dozens of unlawfully built homes in a pine forest that prevented access to the sea but while Tsipras said he took “political responsibility,” his government denied any wrongdoing at all.
On the recording the voice said to be Matthaiopoulos is heard warning Liotsios what would happen to him if he revealed the truth.
"… Are you going to go up against the (local) forestry service (branch), they'll rip you a new one; are you going to go up against Dourou, she'll open your buttocks apart… Once we're accused, we'll put up three lawyers (up against you)…you'll be accused, accused, accused," he said, according to Naftemporiki.
At another point, the male voice making the threats cites an "order" by the "minister,” warning him "not to write anything…nor that any culpability lies with your superiors; the minister told me this, saying 'call him (Liotsios), and tell him: Don't write that the mayor or Dourou or anyone is at fault, or any service or the forestry service.'"