AFTER the recent seizure of the Attorney-General’s limo by court bailiffs, over the failure of the state to pay a citizen for land it had expropriated, the government prepared a bill that would protect state assets from court orders. However, deputies at the legal affairs committee which discussed the bill on Wednesday, expressed reservations over the scale of the protection offered to state property.
In other words, there was very little a citizen, owed money by the state, could secure a seizure order against. Deputies from all parties felt the bill was not just protecting state property, but preventing any of it being seized, which put a citizen, with a legitimate claim, at a disadvantage against the state. Committee chairman Sotiris Sampson said that deputies were looking at ways of limiting the scope of the bill so that individual rights would also be safeguarded.
Deputies are absolutely correct. The right of a citizen to secure a court order against the state when it refuses to fulfil its obligations to citizens must be safeguarded in a democracy. We cannot have a state that does as it pleases and deprive citizens of remedial action. If a company delays making its VAT payments, the state service has the right to visit the company’s premises and confiscate assets. Officials can take any assets they want, irrespective of whether this might affect the operation of the company.
It would be understandable if the state protected some assets such as antiquities, works of art or items of cultural value, but why should anything else, such as the limos of state officials be protected? If the state wants to protect its officials from public ridicule, it should honour its obligations to citizens. This is easier said than done, when we consider that the Republic owes in excess of €500 million to land-owners for expropriations.
Given the amount, it is perfectly understandable that the government has prepared a bill that would prevent the seizure of most of its assets. Another step for easing the pressure on the state was a bill prepared by the interior ministry reducing the interest rate charged for delays in settling land expropriation debts from nine to three per cent a year.
Interior Minister Socratis Hasikos said the new interest rate was necessary to reflect the sharp fall in land prices and the lower interest rate charged by the banks. However the state did not offer to do the same for the interest rate charged by the Inland Revenue Department for delays in payment of income tax which remains at nine per cent per annum. Lower bank interest rates do not affect the interest charged for individuals’ debts to the state.
There has always been an unequal relationship between the individual and the state in Cyprus, which is why it was encouraging to see deputies standing up for the individual, with regard to seizures bill.