The Greek justice system has succeeded where terrorists, human rights groups, thousands of campaigners and dozens of former heads of state have failed: in securing the release of a political prisoner. That’s how businessman, soccer club owner and judicial enigma Makis Psomiadis referred to himself when he was arrested earlier this month after spending almost three months on the run from authorities who accused him of being a key player in a widespread match-fixing ring.
Psomiadis, who has over the last four decades been accused — and in many cases found guilty — of offenses as diverse as gold smuggling, embezzlement, blackmail and tax evasion, uttered the phrase “I am a political prisoner,” with no sense of shame or irony. The justice system responded in kind by deciding to release Psomiadis on bail after spending just a few days in custody. This, despite the fact that he is alleged to be one of the central players in an illegal gambling network that generated millions in profits from fixing the outcome of Greek soccer games at all levels.
Psomiadis was one of more than 80 people charged following an operation that lasted several months and involved the participation of experts at European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, and Greece’s intelligence service, which eavesdropped on phone conversations. A magistrate decided to accept Psomiadis’s argument that the potentially incriminating recordings were made after the allegedly fixed matches and therefore proved little. So, after spending less than a week in custody, Psomiadis was released.
The magistrate’s only concession to the law was to demand that the mustachioed 55-year-old post bail of some 600,000 euros. But such is the state of decay of the justice system that it did not ask itself how Psomiadis, who was also wanted for owning a patisserie that owed 300,000 euros in taxes, could suddenly find double that amount to secure his freedom, especially since he has reportedly never declared any income or savings.
That liberty may be temporary as a council of judges is due to give a final verdict on whether Psomiadis can walk free until his trial. But the damage has been done. The institutional decay and individual weaknesses that have undermined justice in Greece have been laid bare. Everyone can see that prosecutors and judges, employees of each and every taxpayer, are hardly working in the public’s interest. The system they represent, meanwhile, is lost in reams of red tape, piles of dusty case files, a mounting backlog of cases and 19th-century facilities.
There is much that is worrying about Psomiadis’s case in particular. A recent documentary by the “Kouti tis Pandoras” (Pandora’s Box) program on NET TV alleged that the man also known as “Big Mak” had been involved with the junta’s torture squads during the 1960s and 70s. Psomiadis allegedly escaped trial after the dictatorship’s collapse and has been on the run from justice ever since, leaving a trail of wrecked lives, businesses and soccer clubs in his path.
However, beyond the confines of the weird and dismal world of Makis Psomiadis, the impunity he has enjoyed for the last 40 years or so also tells the very grim story of the ailing Greek justice system.
While Psomiadis has walked in and out of courtrooms and passed through jails like a welcome visitor, others have languished behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit or for trials that were repeatedly postponed. Andrew Symeou, a young British man, recently spent 10 months in custody in Greece after being accused of murder even though there was no evidence linking him to the crime. Symeou languished for longer in Greek prisons than Psomiadis, who has been convicted of crimes that would put most hardened criminals to shame.
Rather than being blind, the justice system turned a blind eye to Psomiadis and his crimes, allowing him to waltz out of jail on supposed grounds of ill health, only for him to be seen chomping on his trademark cigar just hours later. In doing so, the judiciary has exacerbated unfairness rather than upheld fairness. It’s played a part in creating the kind of insidious unfairness that erodes people’s faith in institutions and makes them believe that the only way of leveling the playing field is for them to show contempt for the law as well.
Psomiadis’s tale is also symptomatic of the failings that have led to Greece’s demise. It speaks of a justice system where laws, the building blocks of democracy, are suspended in webs spun by arcane procedures and by corrupt or incompetent officials. One only has to look at the judiciary’s ineffectiveness over the last few months, when Greece needed quick and effective implementation of laws, to appreciate that it’s one of several institutions no longer fit for purpose.
It stands as an obstacle when there is a desperate need for a clear, predictable road ahead. It has been exposed as toothless with regards to pursuing politicians suspected of corruption. And, to make matters worse, those who work within the system have done little to fight for justice during this challenging period, when citizens are taxed on their already-taxed income to produce the solidarity tax and when owners of buildings rented by ministries are exempted from paying a property levy that homeowners have to pay.
The injustice of it all is enough to set off a revolution. If it happens, there will be a prime candidate for its first “political prisoner.”