Cyprus Mail
CM Regular Columnist Opinion

Mari blame game muddied the waters of truth

former defence minister Costas Papacostas

By Johan van den Kerkhof

THE VERDICT in the Mari trial left almost everyone with a bone to pick. Some were outraged that only former defence minister Costas Papacostas was found guilty of manslaughter; they had wanted ex-foreign minister Marcos Kyprianou to don the convict jumpsuit as well. Another gripe was that neither Demetris Christofias, president at the time in question, nor his advisers were called to account. Others said it was inconceivable that not one person from the military was found guilty on any level. More on that later. And others still complain that two senior firemen and the commander of the disaster response squad were convenient scapegoats so that the higher-ups could get away scot-free.

The grievances mostly relate to the attorney-general’s prosecution of the case, but they extend to the sentences handed down by the court – the penalties were too soft, etc.

No matter how you slice and dice it, everyone’s got a beef. That the trial and verdict would generate controversy was both understandable and predictable. What troubles is the ‘logic’ employed in many so-called arguments that are being bandied about.

One gem doing the rounds among laypeople goes like this: “Poor old Papacostas, he’s an old, sickly man, do they really have to throw him in jail?” That’s got to be one of the most asinine things I’ve ever heard. If you’re guilty, you’re guilty period, and you do the time, whether you’re 50, 100 or 120 years old. For the record, the court probably did take age into consideration in pronouncing sentence on the elderly Papacostas.

Now I can’t stress enough that I’m not taking sides on whether the man was culpable or not. For one, I didn’t attend the trial and so don’t have anywhere near the necessary information to make that call, even if I wanted to.

OK, so maybe the above example was a bit of a cheap shot. So let’s up the ante and take on the illustrious lawyers of the land. My jaw literally dropped as I read some of the remarks made by Efstathios Efstathiou, an advocate for Papacostas, during the mitigation hearing.

No doubt during the hearing the learned lawyer did pose some bona fide legal arguments in favour of his client. But try this on for size: as reported by the Mail (July 25, 2013), Efstathiou informed the court that “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 told the judges.

Where to begin. For starters, plausible and possible are not the same. Also, whatever society may or may not feel is irrelevant. For better or for worse, the courts and only the courts decide. I shouldn’t have to state the obvious, but Efstathiou has forced me to. Strike one.

Second, is it possible that an old man and three firemen were responsible, he asks. If you put it that way, yes, anything is possible. Ask a rhetorical question and be prepared for a rhetorical answer.

Moving on: “Efstathiou 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.”

Who is this guy trying to convince? A court doesn’t pick the accused, it merely tries those brought before it. Whether the ‘wrong’ persons were charged is immaterial to the court. Strike two.

And one of my all-time favourites: “Efstathiou said the prosecution chose scapegoats to take on the responsibility for the blast, rather than those who were ‘truly responsible’.”

Wow. Honey stop, you had me at ‘scapegoats’.

But what is pertinent here? Is it who you (Esftathiou) think is responsible, who the kiosk owner down the road thinks is responsible, or who the court thinks (and has already ruled) is responsible? Prizes for the correct response. Again, does Efstathiou realise whom he is addressing? Strike three.

That’s not to say that courts don’t make mistakes. But the point is, with ‘arguments’ like that – and I’m going out on a limb here – perhaps Papacostas might have fared better with alternative legal counsel.

If this sort of dumbing down is heard in a courtroom, is it then any wonder that logical reasoning – whose purpose is to get to the truth – is so lacking in this country?

To this day, most people tend to oversimplify the Mari incident. It was the AKEL government’s fault, it was Christofias, it was the military, etc. Sure, it’s the easiest thing in the world to come up with a grand unifying theory. You pick a villain and stick with him. No ‘what ifs’ or ‘buts’ – no, that kind of layered thinking would just strain the brain cells too much. We opt for the easy, packaged answers, and go to sleep at night content with ourselves.

I have always maintained that arriving at the truth about Mari is a far more intricate and complex matter. By contrast, one popularly held view is that the previous administration is to blame, because had they not agreed to keep the containers in Cyprus, the tragedy would have been averted. At face value, this sounds compelling. On closer scrutiny, it collapses.

Now, I’m neither a lawyer nor a philosopher, so I’m not even going to pretend to pose as an authority on causation. So relying just on common sense, I propose the following scenario. Also, before we proceed, bear in mind that when we say it’s someone’s fault for Mari, we have to spell out what we mean. Do we mean it’s someone’s fault for the actual blast, or for the casualties? It’s a crucial distinction, which shall soon become apparent. In short, explosion does not necessarily equal fatalities.

As I see it, the Mari incident – and the varying degrees of responsibility – can be broken down into four ‘stages’. Stage 1: the decision to keep the munitions in Cyprus. Stage 2: the storage of the containers. Stage 3: the blast. Stage 4: the deaths caused by the blast.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that an accident was not inevitable from the moment the decision was made to keep the containers in Cyprus. Simply put, the munitions could have remained here for a thousand years – I exaggerate to make a point – and not exploded had they been properly stored. So, Stage 1 is light years away from Stages 3 and 4.

So Stage 2 – the storage – is key. Who was the genius who determined the containers should be stacked in an open space, exposed to the elements for over two years? Why, after this decision was made, was action not taken since the risks were known and discussed? Who could have taken corrective action and did not? Why were the munitions not buried underground? Or, even allowing that this was too costly or logistically difficult, could a canopy not have been built on site to shield the containers from the sun? Surely, even if the order had come straight from the top to maintain the ‘status quo’, covering the containers with a bit of cloth would not amount to insubordination. The containers would still be there, just more protected.

Nevertheless, to argue that improper storage led to the deaths is stretching it a bit. Yes, it is reasonable to state that it did lead to the blast. But the explosion does not necessarily entail the next stage (casualties). There would have been no casualties had (a) no attempt been made to extinguish the fires, which both fire service and military manuals explicitly advised against; and (b) had the base and surrounding area been completely evacuated.

Neither of these two conditions were met. In addition to the firemen, a handful of soldiers stayed on in a vain attempt to put out the fires. In other words, loss of life could – and should – have been avoided right down to the last few minutes, that is, after the first minor explosion. Who decided/ordered the personnel to stay on the base? If we care to address this last question, and if we genuinely want to get to the ‘truth’, we may have to shake off the Cypriot mindset where anyone who dies in the line of duty automatically becomes a hero and is beyond reproach.

So is someone ‘responsible’ for Mari? You bet they are, but I’ll be damned if I know who. What I do know is that I haven’t become any wiser listening to the ongoing kindergarten-like public debate. Though averse to sweeping statements, my feeling is that – yet again – amidst our emotionalism and penchant for black-or-white explanations, we’ve missed out on a chance to think things through, we haven’t learned the lessons of Mari, and we’re therefore destined to repeat the same mistakes. Fool me once…

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