By Renee Maltezou
ATHENS (Reuters) - A Greek journalist who published the names of more than 2,000 of his compatriots who held Swiss bank accounts was acquitted on Thursday in a case that touched a nerve over the role of tax evasion in the country's debt crisis.
The trial of Costas Vaxevanis, editor of the weekly Hot Doc magazine, had aroused international concern and intense interest among Greeks hit by the impact of the country's economic collapse and angry at the privileges of the elite.
He could have faced up to two year years in prison on charges of violating data privacy laws that Vaxevanis said were politically motivated and the result of politicians protecting an "untouchable" wealthy class.
His speedy arrest and trial following publication of the "Lagarde List" at the weekend - so named for Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund - touched a nerve in near-bankrupt Greece, where rampant tax evasion is undermining a struggle to cut public costs and raise revenue under an EU/IMF bailout deal.
It also enraged many who are already furious over the failure of consecutive governments to crack down on the rich while years of recession have wiped out a fifth of economic output and hammered middle-class living standards.
After an all-day trial the courtroom - packed with journalists, rights advocates and Greek citizens - erupted in cheers when the judge pronounced Vaxevanis not guilty. He lifted his fists in the air and his teenage daughter embraced him.
"This ruling is not only right, but it frees journalism. Journalists in Greece have been held hostage for a very long time" the curly-haired unshaven editor said after the verdict.
"This ruling gives our colleagues the possibility to do their jobs without handcuffs."
Greece has so far failed to convict any big names of tax evasion, fuelling popular disenchantment with a political class that promised to force the wealthy to share some of the pain of the debt crisis.
Vaxevanis has said an anonymous source gave him the list of Swiss account holders, which Lagarde handed to authorities in several EU states in 2010 when she was French finance minister.
In a trial in which prosecutors said Vaxevanis had "crucified" those on the list, his defense lawyers argued no one had complained their privacy had been violated.
Vaxevanis said he had published the names because it was his duty as a journalist and politicians had refused to act.
"Greek people have known for two years now that there is a list of people who are rich, rightly or wrongly, and they are untouchable. At the same time, the (Greek people) are on the other side, they are suffering cuts," he told the court from the witness stand.
"The political system has been hiding the truth for so long."
Another newspaper, daily Ta Nea, devoted 10 pages to publishing the 2,059 names, which include several politicians as well as businessmen, shipping magnates, doctors, lawyers and housewives.
It said the accounts had held about 2 billion euros ($2.59 billion) until 2007, but also made clear that there was no evidence any of the holders had broken tax evasion laws.
Two former finance ministers have acknowledged they had copies of the list.
But incumbent Yannis Stournaras told parliament on Thursday he had not seen it since taking office after a June election, and there was no record that the ministry's financial crimes division ever received it.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's government has not commented on the accuracy of the list, which Greek officials say was stolen by a former employee of HSBC bank.
According to an EU report published last year, Greece has about 60 billion euros in unpaid taxes, an amount equal to roughly a quarter of its economy and over a sixth of its debt.
(Writing by Michael Winfrey, Editing by Michael Roddy)