Christos Sartzetakis passes away: an unyielding judge resisted efforts to make of him an one-sided legend

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

The passing away of former President of the Hellenic Republic Christos Sartzetakis, aged 93, was cause for far more than the formal mourning for an already distant head of State. Sartzetakis was the examining judge in the assassination of left-wing politician Grigoris Lambrakis by two right-wing extremists in Thessaloniki, back in 1963. In the background of that assassination in right-wing-ran Greece of the Fifties and Sixties, where democracy was largely a fiction, one could easily divine the hand of a deep state – the one that soon afterwards (in 1967) came to the fore as the Greek military dictatorship (of 1967-74).

A centrist by political persuasion, Sartzetakis conducted the interrogation of suspects in the explosive case that had caused important civil unrest; he resisted steadfastly pressure from political and judicial circles to assist in, or at least condone the attempted cover-up of the Lambrakis case.

If the story had stopped there, it would have been rather one-dimensional. But a truck-load of the Lambrakis case files was dumped (by left-wing publisher Despotidis) at the lap of (youthful, legally-trained) writer Vasilis Vassilikos. He promptly wrote a fictionalized account of the Lambrakis Case, to be serialized in the mass-circulation weekly Tachydromos; it then came out in book form as “Z” – just months before dictatorship took over Greece. Self-exiled film-maker Costas Gavras, active in the Paris intelligentsia and art world, got his hands on the “Z” manuscript (his brother happened to serve as a conscript in the Army alongside Vassilikos): he immediately realized he had a ready-made scenario. Making a film with this input was no easy matter, but Spanish writer Jorge Semprun (also an exile in Paris) helped in arranging the scenario, also in corralling financial assistance. Partly filmed in Algeria – shooting in Greek locations was impossible, since the country was already under the rule of the Colonels – the film “Z” came out in 1968.

The role of the young dynamic but above all unyielding judge Chr. Sartzetakis was played by Jean-Louis Trintignan. Initially screened in Paris, “Z” was met with some reluctance by audiences; soon enough, it earned acclaim and viewers stood at the end applauding the cast and director, as a support to the Greek people that was considered resisting the dictatorship. This is how Sartzetakis entered in legend territory: the dictatorial regime added to this by dismissing him from the judiciary, and putting him under arrest.

Once democratic rule restored in Greece, Sartzetakis was reinstated and ended his career as High Court judge. But this is just one part of the whole Sarzetakis story: centre-left Socialist ruler Andreas Papandreou presented the candidacy of “the judge in the Lambrakis case” for President of the Republic, in place of (Right-wing) political figure of Constantine Karamanlis. Following a tumultuous series of voting sessions at Parliament, Sartzetakis was elected and sworn in as President. He was widely seen as an emblematic figure of Greece turning its back to the rule of Right-wing governments of the post-WWII era.

Once more, this was not meant to be the end of the story. As one may remember, Christos Sartzetakis may have come from a centrist background and his selection certainly conveyed an anti-Right message to Greek voters. But when he came to participate in Greek public life, his positions in matters he perceived of national importance – especially in the troubled years of Balkan turmoil, with the Macedonian issue first and foremost – Sartzetakis made no secret of his own opinions, at times verging to the outright nationalist. He was also vocal with conservative approaches to matters of education or religion, all along showing the same tenacity that had made of him a nuisance to the deep state when he played the central role in the Lambrakis case.

His introductory note meticulously prepared to express his reading of the case before the criminal Court when the Lambrakis case was heard, was published in 2016 – more than 1700 pages long, by Kerkyra Publishing. Styled “In accomplishment of duty” it expresses the deeper reading of Satzetakis’ self-perception.