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Cyprus

Jailing former minister would be akin to ’death sentence’

Former defence minister Costas Papacostas

By Poly Pantelides

A LAWYER for former defence minister Costas Papacostas who was found guilty of manslaughter in the deaths of 13 people killed in a naval base blast on July 11, 2011 yesterday asked the court for leniency during a mitigation hearing.

“If any sentence of whatever length is given, taking away [Papacostas’] freedom, in effect this would be akin to handing him a death sentence,” Efstathios Efstathiou said.

On July 9, Larnaca criminal court found Papacostas and three others guilty. The others 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, facing up to four years in jail. Manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Former foreign minister Marcos Kyprianou and deputy National Guard commander Savvas Argyrou were acquitted. The attorney-general has appealed the decision to acquit Kyprianou of the charge of causing death due to a reckless and dangerous act, and appealed the decisions to acquit Loizides and Charalambous of manslaughter.

All the guilty parties have reportedly appealed the court’s decision.

Papacostas, 73, has been in hospital since the day of the verdict. The former minister, who quit hours after the naval base blast, suffered an aneurysm about two years ago and has ongoing heart, blood pressure and kidney problems. A group stood outside Nicosia hospital on Tuesday marking their support for the former minister who was not in court yesterday.

Efstathiou added society at large felt an injustice had been done.

“Is it possible that an old man and three firemen are responsible for the disaster at Mari?” Efstathiou said.

He accused state prosecutors of letting off the hook those who should have been charged, including colonel Georgios Georgiades who went from facing charges to serving as a prosecution witness.

Efstathiou said the prosecution chose scapegoats to take on the responsibility for the blast, rather than those who were “truly responsible”.

State prosecutor Polina Efthyvoulou said Efstathiou insulted the institution of the attorney general, asking him to “either substantiate or withdraw” his allegations. Efstathiou said the court could judge on its own.

Eftstathiou yesterday spoke of Papacostas’ long-running service to the state, including awards for his actions during the 1974 Greek-inspired coup and for his participation in the EOKA 1955-1959 struggle against the British colonialist government.

Papacostas’ health was shaken in 1996 when his daughter, Florina, died while on duty as a police officer, and also on July 11, the day of the blast, Efstathiou said.

The lawyer also asked the court not to imprison his other two clients, Charalambous and Nicolaou.

Nicolaou, 60, was a duty-bound man whose performance was always above-par, Efstathiou said. He also takes care of his two-year-old granddaughter Thalia, who has West’s Syndrome, a rare epileptic disorder, Efstathiou said.

Charalambous, 57, is unable to move his right arm after a 2008 injury while fighting a blaze, Efstathiou said. Following the blast, Charalambous has been suffering from post-traumatic stress and is under psychological and psychiatric support, Efstathiou said.

“[The three] are not people in need of reform and imprisoning them would take away useful members from society,” Efstathiou said.

The mitigation hearing is due to continue on Monday, when the court is to hear from Loizides’ lawyer.

The munitions, confiscated in 2009 from a Cyprus-flagged ship sailing from Iran to Syria, had been stored at Evangelos Florakis base in 98 containers left exposed to the elements until the day of their explosion.

The blast killed seven sailors and six firemen and damaged the island’s biggest power station, nearby.

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