FEW WOULD have expected a leading member of the Cyprus ruling elite, like Christodoulos Christodoulou, to have ended up behind bars for tax evasion. To be precise, he is not yet behind bars because on hearing his five-month jail sentence in court last Monday he had the chest-pains that all big-shots seem to suffer in such circumstances and was rushed to hospital. A medical council met yesterday to decide whether keeping Christodoulou in hospital was justified. Even the calling of a medical council, so soon, was a surprise.
This was, after all, a man who had wielded immense power during his glowing career, having occupied an array of top positions that enabled him to develop strong links with all sections of the establishment – white-collar unions, political parties, state services, the media and the Church. A permanent secretary, finance minister, interior minister and governor of the central bank, who had also entertained presidential ambitions, Christodoulou was so well-connected he would have expected to avoid a custodial sentence. And if this were any other time in the country’s history, he would probably have got off with a fine and suspended prison sentence.
But these are not normal times. There is real public anger over what has happened to the country and over the authorities’ failure to prosecute any members of the ruling elite that had played a part in bringing the economic meltdown. Christodoulou might not have been directly responsible for the collapse of the economy, but he had been a member of the corrupt establishment who was caught breaking the law. There was no judge in Cyprus that would have shown him clemency in current circumstances.
Judges must also feel the social pressure to pass tough sentences. A few weeks ago, when it was revealed that a Limassol judge had not even imposed a fine on a former minister that drove through a red light and hit a teenager who is now paralysed, there was public outrage. This raised the suspicion that judges treated members of the Cyprus establishment much more leniently than ordinary citizens. If Christodoulou was not given a custodial sentence, this suspicion would have been reinforced. Some could say that five months was lenient, considering he would be out after two, but it still was a custodial sentence that would have been unheard of for a leading member of society three years ago.
What is important is that a big taboo has been broken, even though it remains to be seen whether this is the start of a new trend or the exception that proves the rule.