Cyprus Mail
Cyprus

‘He closed his eyes to the danger’

(To watch footage taken outside the courtroom after the verdict was announced, go to http://videos.cyprus-mail.com/reactions-to-mari-verdict-july-9/)

 

By George Psyllides

THE LARNACA criminal court yesterday found former defence minister Costas Papacostas guilty of manslaughter in the deaths of 13 people killed in a naval base munitions blast on July 11, 2011.

Three senior firemen were found guilty on a lesser charge while former foreign minister Markos Kyprianou and deputy National Guard commander Savvas Argyrou were acquitted.

Papacostas, who reportedly collapsed some time after the verdict and was being treated at Nicosia general hospital, was found to have direct responsibility over the safekeeping of the munitions that were improperly stored at an open space at the Evangelos Florakis naval base.

“We have no doubt the defendant was aware of the risks… but closed his eyes to the danger,” presiding Criminal Court Judge Tefkros Economou said in his verdict at a hearing attended by dozens of relatives clutching photos of the victims.

Manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

The three other guilty parties are fire service chief Andreas Nicolaou, deputy chief Charalambos Charalambous, and Andreas Loizides, the commander of the disaster response squad EMAK.

They were found guilty of causing death due to a reckless and dangerous act and face up to four years in jail.

Former foreign minister Kyprianou was cleared.

The court said he had no “authority over the cargo, he was handling the political dimension of the problem, implementing the policy of the President of the Republic.”

On hearing the decision on Kyprianou, Poppi Christoforou, who her lost 19-year-old twin sons in the explosion shouted “Justice has been sent to the gallows.”

Kyprianou’s brother Achilleas declined to comment on the verdict.
“Our thoughts are with the victims and the relatives,” he said.

The four guilty defendants will remain in custody until July 24, the date set by the court for the mitigation hearing.

The court’s decision to acquit the two defendants angered the victims’ relatives.

“They will not escape divine judgement,” said Eleni Tandi, sister of fireman Spyros Tandis.

Another relative suggested that former president Demetris Christofias should have also been on trial.
“The main guilty party was missing from the courtroom,” she told reporters.

A public inquiry found Christofias politically responsible for the explosion, but the constitution affords him immunity from prosecution.

The court said the facts of the case “demonstrate a universal, unacceptable and outrageous dysfunction of the political and administrative system.

The munitions had been seized from the Monchegorsk, a Syria-bound Cyprus-flagged ship that sailed from Iran.

They were confiscated in February 2009 after it was determined they were in breach of United Nations Security Council resolutions on Iran.

They had been stored at the Evangelos Florakis base in 98 containers that were left exposed to the elements until the day they exploded, killing the seven sailors and six firemen.

The blast also caused significant damage to the island’s biggest power station, located next door, which had a crippling effect on the economy.

The court highlighted the improper way the munitions had been stacked, ignoring the dangers posed by the cargo itself and only taking into account the possibility of sabotage.

“The way of storage blatantly violated the relevant army command, which states that munitions must be stored in depots that are 60 to 70 metres apart and must provide protection from high temperatures or humidity,” the court heard.

In its decision, the court questioned how Cyprus on February 3, 2009, did not have “the capabilities or facilities for storing, safe-keeping or disposing of such material in such quantities” and ten days later it managed to overcome the difficulties assuring the UN that it had “adequate and appropriate facilities for safe storage of the cargo.”

“We have no testimony explaining this spectacular change,” the court said.

The court added that the only fact before it that happened in the meantime was the urge of UN Security Council committee for Cyprus to explore the possibility of cooperating with other countries for the safekeeping of the cargo.

“Instead of exploring the possibility of co-operation there was the assurance,” from the Presidential Palace, the court said.

The man who stored the munitions was colonel Giorgos Georgiades, who was initially charged but then turned state’s witness.

The court said his testimony was “inherently suspicious and doubtful” and chose not to use it against the defendants.

“He was the one who placed the containers in that unacceptable way, in violation of standing orders, and without taking into account any other dangers,” the court said. “The excuse he gave during cross-examination was that it was temporary and that he had been carrying out orders.”

If he were a defendant, the claim that he had been carrying out orders should have been examined having in mind that a subordinate’s obligation to follow orders did not invalidate their right to refuse an order that was obviously improper or contrary to law, the court said.

Georgiades even received a commendation from the National Guard leadership for “acts that constituted a violation of standing orders,” it added.

The court however, said it would be unfair if it ignored Georgiades’ later efforts to raise the matter so that measures were taken.

(To watch footage taken outside the courtroom after the verdict was announced, go to http://videos.cyprus-mail.com/reactions-to-mari-verdict-july-9/)

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