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Europe

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 former Siemens executives in Greece would begin in earnest on December 15. After a two-hour delay, the court was in session, but that didn't last long: The German interpreter appointed for the defendants announced that he would not be able to work next week, and, with the case against the managers only in Greek so far, their attorneys could seek to delay things a whole lot longer.

The trial is about an agreement entered in 1997 between Siemens and OTE, the formerly state-owned telecommunications company. It was a deal worth billions for the digitization of Greece's telephone network - and one of the most lucrative contracts Siemens has been awarded in its 100-year history of doing business in the country. Now it must be determined whether bribes amounting to 70 million euros ($74 million) or more 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. One of them is former CEO Heinrich von Pierer; another is the former head of Siemens Greece, Michalis Chirstoforakos. It is highly likely that the two former executives will not appear in court.

Former CEO, Heinrich von Pierer

Former CEO, Heinrich von Pierer

The Greek media simply calls the trial the "Siemens case," although it does not involve the corporation as a legal entity. Prosecutors in Athens took at least eight years to investigate before filing the main charges this spring. And still concerns are being voiced: Critics point out that the nearly 4,600-page indictment has only been written in Greek, as judicial authorities did not have it translated into German, a calculation that saved a translation fee of 90,000 euros, but could prove a major setback for the prosecution.

"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. Lawyers representing 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 prosecutors say completely different allegations are being made. Also, Siemens is apparently in trouble with Greek authorities: "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.

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) in its Greek subsidiary within five years and provide nearly the same amount of funding for local anti-corruption programs and scholarships. Furthermore, it did not have to pay 80 million euros in outstanding invoices.

Former Siemens Greece executive Michael Christoforakos

Former Siemens Greece executive Michael Christoforakos

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 co-signed 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.