By Elias Hazou
THE SUPREME Court ordered on Monday the extradition of former interior minister Dinos Michaelides to Greece for questioning related to corruption charges.
Michaelides, 75, would be the first Cypriot government or former government official to be extradited to Greece, where authorities want to question him as part of a graft inquiry against Akis Tsohatzopoulos.
Tsohatzopoulos, a founding member of Greece’s socialist PASOK party, is facing charges of accepting kickbacks for arms contracts when he was defence minister. He denies the charges.
Greek prosecutors allege Tsohatzopoulos siphoned funds overseas. They say one of his co-defendants has alleged that Michaelides helped Tsohatzopoulos set up bank accounts, and that they want to question the former Cypriot minister about that.
Michaelides denies any wrongdoing.
He served as interior minister in two governments, the second stint in the late 1990s, and has since maintained a legal practice.
Greek authorities issued an arrest warrant against Michaelides when he failed to respond to a summons to appear in an Athens court earlier this year.
His lawyers had fought the extradition, appealing against a district court’s verdict which said he had to go to Greece. Among other things, they argued that the media coverage and public statements on the affair had prejudiced the lower court’s decision.
However the Supreme Court upheld the previous ruling and Michaelides has no further right of appeal. The court said he must be extradited within 10 days.
Both Michaelides and his son Michalis are wanted in Greece in connection with alleged kickbacks paid in the purchase by Greece of Russian TOR-M1 surface-to-air missile systems.
The former minister is to remain in custody at the Central Prisons until he is extradited on a European arrest warrant.
A senior state prosecutor stressed that despite the ruling here, Michaelides is a suspect in Greece and is presumed innocent until proven otherwise.
Calling yesterday’s court ruling a ‘landmark decision’, Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou affirmed that the government would comply with the Greek extradition request within the set deadline.
Nicolaou said the decision is important because it paves the way for a quid pro quo between Cypriot and Greek authorities.
Nicosia now expects that Athens will in turn positively consider future requests for the extradition of Greek citizens to Cyprus, he added.
Nicolaou revealed that the government intends to seek extradition of Greek nationals to be questioned here for cases connected to the near-bankruptcy of Cypriot banks.
“Such cases will come about in the near future. There exist actions that have occurred in Greece and in which Greek citizens took part,” he said, without elaborating.
A major criminal probe is underway into what caused Cyprus’ economic meltdown. The investigation covers the period 2006 to 2013, and its scope encompasses the transfer of capital from Laiki Bank to Greece, dodgy loans, the issuing of securities by both Laiki and Bank of Cyprus (BoC), and banks’ activities abroad, such as BoC’s acquisition of Uniastrum and Banca Transilvania.
Greek authorities had originally issued an arrest warrant for Michaelides and his son back in July, but the process was stalled because Cyprus’ constitution prohibited extraditing Cypriots for offences committed before the island joined the EU in May 2004.
Michaelides’s stint as interior minister coincided with Tsohatzopoulos’ time as defence minister in Greece between 1996 and 2001.
Lawmakers here subsequently amended the relevant legislation, removing the exception originally inserted by MPs – in violation of EU rules – reportedly to protect two Cypriot businessmen.
The bill to amend the constitution had been pending from last year.
Greek authorities then moved quickly to rescind the original warrants and issue new ones based on the new state of play.