Cyprus Mail
Cyprus

Former President was ‘contemptuous and inexcusable’

By Poly Pantelides

THE INQUIRY panel into the near collapse of the economy is now awaiting a ruling from the attorney-general’s office on how to handle the walkout by former President Demetris Christofias yesterday.

Christofias was due to speak before a panel looking into the circumstances of the island’s economic collapse but walked out of the hearing because he was not allowed to read a 25-page statement that would have taken him 90 minutes.

“It was explained to [Christofias], as it was to previous witnesses, that the aim of his attendance was to be examined by the committee of inquiry and afterwards… he could submit the document and read it out…,” the inquiry said in an announcement they read out to the press after Christofias had stormed off.

The panel said the former president’s refusal to testify violated his legal obligation to do so, an offence punishable by a fine of up to €2,000. But because only the courts can impose penalties, the committee said, it would not be pursuing this course of action.

However, the panel added, Christofias’ refusal to testify verbally before a committee of inquiry as instructed potentially constitutes “insubordination to a legal order,” an offence which falls under the penal code. As such, the panel said it would be referring the matter to the attorney-general.

The panel said Christofias’ behaviour was “inexcusable (and) contemptuous of institutions and the proper functioning of the law”.

Christofias left the building about two hours after his testimony was scheduled to start.

Speaking at a news conference soon afterwards, Christofias said he had not refused to answer questions, adding that it was the committee that refused to let him read his statement.

Surrounded by friends from opposition party AKEL who had followed him to the news conference at Journalists’ House, he said the truth might be a bitter pill to swallow for some.

“Even in courts, those accused of terrible crimes, have the right to submit and read their testimony,” Christofias said. “There was an effort to gag us, something I consider completely unacceptable.”

Committee chairman Giorgos Pikis said the former president’s behaviour was “inexcusable and contemptuous,” and that he was effectively asking for special treatment.

Earlier yesterday, Christofias said he did not have time to prepare as the committee had recently turned down his request to change the date of his appearance.

“The people with whom I’ve worked for five years have been away, sick.”

“I can’t get into the procedure of answers and questions. I am not an economist. I need time to prepare to answer the questions,” Christofias said.

The former president wanted the committee to give him their questions in writing so that he could respond the same way.

Most of the events the committee of inquiry is investigating took place under Christofias’ watch, who was at the helm between March 2008 and February 2013.

His administration reluctantly asked for an international bailout in June last year, after the island’s major banks asked for a state bailout.

The government was unable to support the lenders following years of steady deterioration of its finances from 2008 onwards.

A number of opposition party AKEL brass and deputies were also present at the hearing, with the heaviest attendance to date.

In his opening statements, Christofias complained to the committee for wedging him in before former Central Bank governor Athanasios Orphanides — who was the banking regulator during most of his administration — which he said violated a code of ethics.

He asked to read out the prepared statement to answer the “many lies and inaccuracies” stemming from “five or six” political parties and “most of the media.”

When Pikis told him he would have a chance to read out the statement at the end, as did everyone else who attended the hearings, Christofias said he would leave the proceedings.

“I am not just any witness,” he said. Pikis later said this was “in essence asking for special treatment” despite the fact that the country’s constitution states everyone is the same in the eyes of the law.

Pikis said they would not change their procedure, and told Christofias that failing to answer their questions was an offence.

Christofias accused the panel of drawing out witnesses by asking leading questions.

He said that up until now the proceedings have focused on delays in taking action, accusations that he had not done his job, that he was “guilty”.

Pikis said it was “completely insulting” for the inquiry to be told they were leading any previous witnesses. The inquiry has been trying to ascertain a series of events as per their mandate, Pikis said.

“I am not just any witness. I am in essence – I feel – the accused,” Christofias said.

Christofias had proposed to the panel to answer written questions before President Nicos Anastasiades testified next week, on Tuesday.

Just as Christofias refused to answer to questions verbally, the panel refused to submit their questions in writing. They said their hearings had an investigative character, necessitating on the spot questions and answers.

“I am ready to answer questions in writing,” Christofias said.

“No, that can’t be. You are a witness here,” Pikis said.

“You must testify according to your judgement as a witness. I must clarify that you must answer the questions given to you,” Pikis said, reiterating that Christofias had the right to remain silent.

“Do you know the questions I will give to you?” Pikis asked Christofias, exasperated at his declarations his written statement would address their queries.

“Do you know my text?” Christofias snapped back.

After going round in circles with Christofias saying he was not refusing to answer any questions as long as they were in writing, and the panel explaining that was not the procedure they followed in the hearings, Pikis called for a second break. Christofias eventually left the building and after hours the panel announced their decision to refer the matter to the attorney-general.

Government spokesman Christos Stylianides said the panel must be allowed to complete its work “without any interventions”. Most parties criticised Christofias’ statement, save for opposition AKEL.

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