ATHENS – After declaring 10 rival politicians, including two former Prime Ministers were linked to a 50-million euro ($61.33 million) scandal tied to vaccines from the Swiss-based Novartis pharmaceutical company, the ruling Radical Left SYRIZA is easing up, with reports the case was built on the changing testimonies of secret witnesses.
Judicial sources told Kathimerini that the witnesses, whose names aren’t being revealed and are being kept in protection, keep changing their story about how many politicians were allegedly bribed so the Swiss company could sell anti-flu shots.
There was no direct evidence cited either and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras quickly backed off assertions by government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos that “This is a massive scandal that has stunned Greek society,” and as the major rival New Democracy said the Premier was trying to distract attention from his decision to let the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) keep the name Macedonia in a new composite.
The sources allegedly said that the witnesses, who claimed 50 million euros had been handed out to the 10 politicians, including former Premiers Antonis Samaras from New Democracy and interim Premier Panagiotos Pikramenos, who served only one month, keep changing their accounts of what they claimed happened.
Another 17 witnesses, who are not anonymous, have not claimed there was any bribery and Constantinos Frouzis, who served as Vice President of Novartis Greece, denounced the alleged scandal as a “gross farce,” while calling for the case file to be made public.
Also linked to the alleged scandal by the secret witnesses were Bank of Greece Governor Yannis Stournaras, a former finance minister who has been a regular SYRIZA target after undercutting Tsipras’ rosy economic estimates; New Democracy’s Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European Commissioner in charge of migration affairs; and former finance chief Evangelos Venizelos, a previous head of the now-defunct PASOK Socialists.
The case file also includes an FBI report about Novartis which mentions nothing about illegal payments being made to politicians and states that none of the information can be used for legal proceedings, the paper said.
After getting that information, Tsipras was reported to have told a meeting of SYRIZA’s political council to get more details before pushing for a special committee to probe the case that seemed to be unraveling.
The case file was submitted to Parliament by the Supreme Court prosecutor and named politicians who allegedly received bribes between 2007 and 2015 to fix prices and increase market access.
Provocative Alternate Health Minister Pavlos Polakis, a surgeon, said that the three secret witnesses were Novartis executives who got caught “illegally enriching themselves and sang like birds,” raising questions how he would know as the investigation is supposed to be kept confidential from politicians.
“Testimonies comprise proof. The witnesses are (former) executives of the company that started to ‘sing’ … (they are) executives that were nabbed with caught with wealth that is unexplained, and they started to ‘sing’ … not that they are choir boy, but they started this story,” said Polakis, according to the business newspaper Naftemporiki.
In reply to charges that the entire case has been manufactured, he claimed that “Novartis, just as many pharmaceutical companies, have robbed the planet blind, and this sleaze is now coming to the forefront.”
Asked how he is privy to details in the case file, which has already been turned over to Parliament, Polakis said “I’m a doctor, and I know about these things before I became a minister…. Novartis’ pharmaceuticals overcame other companies’ drugs in an unfair manner,” he added.
That led Justice Minister Stavros Kontonis to quickly dispute his own SYRIZA colleague and say that the government “naturally does not know” who the witnesses are, although Polakis said it does, but he wouldn’t name them either, a common tactic in Greece when charges are made.
New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis denounced the government for “slandering an entire party” (New Democracy) using the testimony of anonymous witnesses, demanding the accusers be revealed and appear before Parliament.
With the Conservatives holding big leads in polls after Tsipras reneged on anti-austerity promises, Mitsotakis said that the Premier “ is trying to save himself in the only way he knows by slandering his political opponents and dividing citizens,” increasing the heat.
An outraged Avramopoulos said the charges were political fabrications without foundation. He said the case was “unsubstantiated” and “full of holes,” adding that, “It’s very clear that this is an unprecedented plot, which would not stand in any other European Union country.” He added:
“Only sick minds would conjure this up and attempt it,” disputing the charges.
while Stournaras said that, “During my term as finance minister I never signed any decision directly or indirectly related to Novartis,” and lashed out at the government.
Samaras said that, “This is the most ruthless but also most ridiculous conspiracy ever,” in another shot at the government.
The government – which isn’t supposed to have access to the information – said that the politicians were paid off so that Novartis could boost subscriptions of their products at public hospitals and sale prices.
Parliament got the case because under Greek law politicians can not be prosecuted and have protection from crimes unless their immunity is lifted.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)