Greek abbot jailed over land swap scandal

AP News
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Posted: Dec 28, 2011 6:34 PM
Greek abbot jailed over land swap scandal

Greek authorities on Wednesday jailed the abbot of a 1,000-year-old Greek Orthodox monastery pending trial for his alleged key role in a land swap with the state that blew up into a major political scandal.

Investigators have said the deal was weighted in favor of Vatopedi Monastery in northern Greece and cost taxpayers about euro100 million ($131 million). Two ministers lost their jobs over the swap, which the conservative government canceled, but legal issues have delayed the full restitution.

The scandal nonetheless contributed significantly to the conservatives' 2009 general election defeat.

Abbot Efraim, 55, was led to Athens' Korydallos prison after spending the night in the capital's police headquarters, following a 600-kilometer (370-mile) journey from the Orthodox monastic sanctuary of Mount Athos _ from which women and female animals have been banned since 1046.

A few dozen supporters shouted slogans outside the prison.

Efraim had been kept under guard in his monastery cell since Saturday, having been temporarily judged unfit to travel due to a high fever and a high blood sugar count. He will stand trial on charges of embezzlement, money laundering and making a false statement.

Fellow Christian Orthodox Russia waded into the fray on Wednesday, with the country's Foreign Ministry criticizing the decision to jail Efraim.

"Bearing in mind the statement by Abbot Efraim of his willingness to cooperate with investigative organs and the condition of his health, we are deeply concerned by the decision of the Greek judicial organs to keep him in custody pending trial, which doesn't take into account the rulings and recommendations of the European Court of Human Rights," ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement.

The abbot had escorted a Christian relic from the monastery's collection to Russia in October, which millions of faithful in 15 Russian cities lined up to view. In Moscow, the queue to see the belt purportedly worn by the Virgin Mary stretched for 2.5 miles (4 kilometers), and the wait was as long as 24 hours.

Greece's Foreign Ministry rejected the criticism.

"Greece is a country ruled by the law that has a long democratic tradition and respect for human rights, where there is full respect for the independence of justice and a clear separation of powers," ministry spokesman Grigoris Delavekouras said. "On these issues, Greece accepts no indications on how to act."

On Tuesday night, several hundred monks, nuns and other demonstrators gathered outside a central court building to protest Efraim's arrest.

No trial date has been set, and the abbot's lawyers are expected to apply for his release. Under Greek law, suspects can be jailed for up to 18 months pending trial.

Greek politicians embroiled in the scandal will not stand trial, as parliament ruled this year that the statute of limitations _ which is far more restrictive for members of parliament than for other citizens _ had expired.

Vatopedi Monastery is a treasure hove of mediaeval artifacts and books. It has attracted large numbers of male guests, including Britain's Prince Charles, who is a frequent visitor to Mount Athos.