Athens - A Greek court sentenced a former mayor to life in prison on Wednesday for embezzling about 20 million euros ($26.15 million) - half of his city's public works budget - underlining the depth of corruption that helped tip Greece into a debt crisis.

Vassilis Papageorgopoulos was mayor of Thessaloniki, Greece's second city, from 1999 to 2010 after serving as deputy sports minister in the early 1990s.

Prosecutors began probing the city's accounts after complaints that millions of euros were missing. One of the main suspects gave evidence against the former mayor.

In the first big corruption trial since the debt crisis erupted, Papageorgopoulos was convicted along with Thessaloniki's former treasurer, who was found guilty of money laundering and forgery, and three other officials.

Papageorgopoulos “was found guilty of being a direct accomplice in the embezzlement”, a court official said on condition of anonymity. The sentence was tougher than usual for financial crimes since the money was stolen from the state, the official added.

Papageorgopoulos has denied any wrongdoing.

“I have nothing to do with this case. I'm sure that some people will die of guilt,” he told the court after the ruling, according to Greek news websites.

A former sprinter and a dentist, Papageorgopoulos earned the nickname “Flying Doctor” while an athlete. He was succeeded as mayor by Yannis Boutaris, a reformist who testified against him during the trial.

Accusations of corruption have dogged Greece's political class but convictions of wrongdoing are rare, irritating Greece's European partners who are pouring billions of euros into the near-bankrupt country.

Several Greek businessmen and a former defence minister have been jailed pending trial on money laundering charges in recent years, but none have been convicted so far. - Reuters