Greece’s parliament voted early on Thursday to set up a committee that will investigate politicians, including former prime ministers, over allegations of bribery by the Swiss drugmaker Novartis.
Court officials say staff at the firm are alleged to have bribed Greek doctors and politicians. Novartis has said that, if an investigation finds its managers acted unethically, it will take “fast and decisive action”.
The 10 socialist and conservative politicians, who served between 2006 and 2015 and have been named in parliament, deny the allegations as a fabrication and a witchhunt by the leftist-led government to discredit them before elections in 2019 – which the government, in turn, denies.
Greek prosecutors, who have investigated for more than a year, referred the case to parliament this month. Under Greek law, it is the only institution that can investigate ministers and lift their immunity.
After a 19-hour debate, a majority of lawmakers in the 300-seat house voted in favour of setting up a parliamentary committee, which will assume the role of an investigating judge, by casting votes in ten ballot boxes, one for each politician.
The coalition government, which was catapulted to power in 2015 promising to end austerity and crack down on corruption, officially requested for the parliamentary inquiry last week.
“We won’t ignore the Greek people’s mandate,” Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said before the vote. “We won’t help cover up or bury one of the biggest scandals in modern Greek history.”
The case has hit a nerve in Greece, slowly emerging from a debt crisis that many blamed on a corrupt political elite and a spendthrift state that ballooned deficits. Athens has slashed healthcare spending to shore up its finances.
Tsipras’ Syriza party trails the conservative New Democracy opposition in polls. In 2015, his government signed up to the country’s third international bailout, which expires in August.
New Democracy’s leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, accused the government of “systematically attacking political opposition” instead of reforming the health sector and cutting spending.
“You pretend to be clean and moral,” he said. “Instead of protecting the state’s interests, you used the case to hurt your political opponents.”
Among those named in documents filed to parliament were the former leader of New Democracy, ex-prime minister Antonis Samaras, former finance minister Evangelos Venizelos and current central bank governor Yannis Stournaras.
Stournaras, who served as finance minister from 2012 to 2014, told lawmakers that witness testimony in the casefile was totally false and urged the house to probe the allegations, which he said were “shameful slander”.
The witnesses’ names have not been disclosed. They are protected from prosecution, court officials said on Tuesday.
Last week, Samaras filed a lawsuit accusing witnesses of slander, prosecutors of breach of duty and Tsipras and a minister of morally assisting them. “I’m not here to apologise, I’m here to denounce,” he told parliament.
Venizelos, former leader of the Socialist PASOK party, has also filed a lawsuit against one of the witnesses, requesting that his identity be revealed for credibility checks. He called the case “the biggest and sloppiest plot” in decades.