Coverup seen in 2018 wildfire tragedy

19 July 2020

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GREECE – Two years after the deadly July 23, 2018, wildfires in eastern Attica, Kathimerini presents evidence pointing to an effort by officials under the leftist-led government at the time to cover up the gross mishandling of an incident that cost more than 100 lives and resulted in devastating losses in the seaside town of Mati and other affected areas.

Kathimerini’s investigation into the immediate response by the authorities to the fires and their aftermath also turned up testimony indicating attempts to prevent the Greek Fire Service officer appointed by the First Instance Prosecutor’s office to look into the case, from doing his job.

Investigator Dimitris Liotsios has filed formal complaints detailing how former chief Fire Service chief Vassilis Matthaiopoulos tried to threaten and blackmail him into burying his findings. He has also submitted an audio recording of the most damning of these conversations. “If you write about your superiors having any blame, we will close ranks and tear you apart,” the fire chief told him.

Using a stream of invectives, Matthaiopoulos is also heard chiding Liotsios for demanding documents signed by then Attica regional governor Rena Dourou, the forestry and fire service, accusing him of lacking the expertise to assess their content.

“Keep it simple, or they’ll take you for an idiot… Five little things: Wind, combustible matter, a mixture of pine trees and houses, anarchic, unplanned construction. And the result was that the fire got out of control in an hour… Five lines, five words, and hand it in. And the prosecutors? Some people will get the pie and you’ll get f…d. That’s how the game is played in Greece,” he told the investigator.

Court documents further show Liotsios running into successive obstacles from the very start of his investigation, including from fire service officials challenging the purview of his authority and rank.

The day after Liotsos’ report was submitted to the head of the First Instance Prosecutors’ Office, meanwhile, Ilias Zagoraios was apparently ordered by former Supreme Court prosecutor Xeni Dimitriou to hold back the findings pending an internal administrative probe, a process that could take months. Following a furor in the media over the move, Dimitriou claimed that her orders had been misinterpreted.

Based on the report, the prosecutor’s office issued charges in March 2019 against 20 state and local authority officials for a range of mistakes and oversights.

The case then passed into the hands of investigative magistrate Athanasios Marneris. His probe also appears to have been stonewalled on several occasions, including by Fire Service officials who refused to hand over incident reports and from attempts to replace him in September 2019 on the pretext that he was taking too long to complete his probe.

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