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The Siemens affair: Lost in translation

In Greece, a corruption trial against former Siemens executives and others employed by the corporation has gotten off to a slow start. The defendants have been accused of bribery and money laundering.
On Friday, the first official day of proceedings, Judge Sotiris Tsiberis announced that the corruption trial against Siemens in Greece would begin in earnest on December 15.

The trial is about an agreement entered in 1997 between the formerly state-owned telecommunication company of Greece (OTE) and Siemens. It was a deal worth billions for the digitization of the Greek telephone network and one of the most lucrative contracts the corporation was awarded in its 100-year history of business with Greece. Now it must be determined whether bribes were used. It is rumored that at least 70 million euros ($74 million) were paid. The accusations are not to be taken lightly: at worst, lifelong prison sentences can be handed down for bribing public officials. A total of 64 people face charges in the case: and one of them is the former CEO of the German corporation, Heinrich von Pierer, and another is the former head of Siemens Greece, Michalis Chirstoforakos. It is highly likely that the two former executives will not appear in court.

The Greek media simply calls the trial the “Siemens case” although it actually does not involve the corporation as a legal entity. Athenian prosecutors took at least eight years to investigate, and the main charges were first filed this spring. And still, concerns are being voiced: Critics point out that the almost 4,600-page indictment has only been written in Greek, as judicial authorities did not have it translated into German to save a translation fee of 90,000 euros.

“This omission in itself is a threat to the trial,” warns Panagiotis Stathis on the political business site Capital.gr. All legal opinions indicate that proceedings can be annulled if important documents have not been translated. In such cases, EU laws and rulings at the European Court of Human Rights have shown that a translation in the defendant’s language is required.

More legal disputes in sight

“Avgi” – the unofficial newspaper of the ruling left-wing party, Syriza – had warned that defense lawyers might try “to use tricks to postpone the trial” because many questions are still unanswered. Trial interruptions and delays are quite common in Greece – and probably an important reason the wheels of justice turn very slowly in the country. Defense lawyers of former Siemens employees also note that their clients have already faced corruption charges in German courts and should thus not be charged twice for the same offense. But the Athenian prosecution assumes that completely different allegations are being made there. Also, Siemens is apparently in trouble with Greek authorities: The left-leaning paper “Avgi” claims to have information about the German corporation’s hiring of workers through temp agencies, which is prohibited by law and would lead to fines for the employers.

The Higher Administrative Court in Greece is currently examining whether an out-of-court settlement in the bribery affair between Siemens and the Greek state is permissible. A settlement reached in the summer of 2012 was supposed to put an end to the corruption scandal. According to the arrangement, Siemens pledged to invest 100 million euros ($106 million)within five years in its Greek subsidiary and provide nearly the same amount of funding for local anti- corruption programs and scholarships. Furthermore, it did not have paid 80 million euros in outstanding invoices.

Leading left-wing politicians in Athens had sharply criticized then-Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, a convervative. The right-wing populist party ANEL, now coalition partner in Alexis Tsipras’ government, even spoke of an “unlawful agreement.” Now there are not only political consequences but legal ones as well. The Siemens settlement must be annulled, says the left-liberal Yannis Kyriakopoulos, deputy head of the Association of Greek Taxpayers, who cosigned the indictment in the administrative court. “This is a lasting, nonpartisan corruption case,” said the lawyer, who feels that he has had some success as administrative judges have affirmed his legitimate interest in pressing charges. Kyriakopoulos also claims that Siemens has not yet fulfilled the commitments made in 2012.

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