Greek govt defeats censure motion over train tragedy

Anger is still high on the streets and in parliament over the government's handling of the disaster (Aris MESSINIS)
Anger is still high on the streets and in parliament over the government's handling of the disaster (Aris MESSINIS)

Greece's conservative government survived a censure motion in parliament on Thursday that was lodged over claims it had tried to manipulate an investigation into the deadly train collision that rocked the country last year.

The no-confidence motion was defeated, with 159 deputies of the 300 in parliament voting against, and 141 in favour.

The conservative government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has a parliamentary majority and was widely expected to defeat the motion lodged by the socialist PASOK party on Tuesday.

The motion came after a newspaper report claimed that a key sound recording from the night of the accident, which claimed 57 lives in February 2023, had been misleadingly edited.

Opposition parties accused the government of having been behind the alleged subterfuge as part of efforts to reinforce its chosen narrative that human error was to blame for the head-on collision.

"Public opinion has reached an irrevocable conclusion -- that you are geared towards a cover-up" of the train tragedy, Nikos Pappas, parliament speaker for the main opposition Syriza party, told the chamber Wednesday.

"You are summoned to give answers," he said.

Opposition parties say the government handed out the spliced recording to friendly media.

But Mitsotakis told the chamber: "Never was there an order to conceal. I am looking you in the eyes and telling you this."

In what he has previously called a "national trauma", Mitsotakis said "chronic failures by the state met human error", insisting that he wanted to speak "the truth" to a "distrustful and angry society".

- Public doubts -

The disaster struck when a freight train and a passenger train with 350 staff and passengers, mostly students, collided near a tunnel outside the central city of Larissa shortly before midnight.

A year after the accident, relatives of the victims say that despite government promises of a full investigation, state authorities wasted time and overlooked vital evidence.

Experts appointed by relatives' families say the accident site was cleaned of wreckage and topsoil before investigators could fully examine it.

The body of a young woman travelling on the passenger train still remains unaccounted for.

Experts for the families have also claimed that the freight train was carrying undeclared chemicals that caused a huge explosion after the crash, killing people who might otherwise have survived.

On Sunday, the To Vima weekly reported that leaked recordings of train staff on the night of the accident had been edited to suggest human error was exclusively to blame.

One clip in particular, which was extensively used at the time, had the station master giving the go-ahead to an unnamed train driver.

To Vima reported that the discussion was with a driver on an earlier train not involved in the accident. It said his name had been removed to create the impression that the discussion was with the driver on one of the trains that collided.

Who carried out the alleged manipulation remains unclear.

- Pressure on PM -

Critics point to an address to the nation by Mitsotakis just hours after the accident in which he said that "everything" showed human error was to blame.

Government spokesman Pavlos Marinakis called the To Vima report "baseless".

The main opposition party Syriza had called on Mitsotakis, who was comfortably re-elected in June, to resign.

Opposition parties were already furious this past week after a four-month parliamentary investigation into the accident concluded without assigning blame to senior politicians.

Over 30 railway employees and officials face charges over the February 28, 2023 disaster, with a trial expected to start in June.

Greece's 2,552-kilometre (1,586-mile) rail network has for decades been plagued by mismanagement, poor maintenance and obsolete equipment.

The government last year shrugged off another censure motion over a wiretap scandal implicating state intelligence and the prime minister's office.