Cyprus Mail

‘I knew what I was getting into’ says refusenik lawyer

Michalis Paraskeva

By Constantinos Psillides

LAWYER and civil activist Michalis Paraskeva, 38, is willing to see his civil disobedience act through to the end, no matter the cost, he told the Sunday Mail. Paraskeva, who made headlines for going to court because he refused to pay his social insurance contributions for the past nine months said he is not deterred by the possibility that he will probably end up in jail.

“Look. I believe in straight talk and this is probably how this will end up. The court will at some point order me to pay my social insurance contributions, as they do in all of these cases. I will refuse to comply. Failing to follow a court order constitutes a criminal offence punishable by a jail sentence. This is the road I’m heading down,” he said.

“I knew what I was getting into when I made my choices. I don’t regret anything. What will come, will come. I’m ready for this. Standing on principle and keeping your dignity and self respect is far more important to me than to back down now.”

Paraskeva is currently in court defending himself against the state. The lawyer was taken to court for refusing to pay his taxes, in response to what he claims is a plan by the government to write-off a €7.2bn debt to the Social Insurance Fund (SIF).

The massive debt to the SIF is the result of years of governments borrowing from the fund to plug holes in public finances. The troika of lenders requested in 2012 that the debt to be written off, although the state has yet to do so.

Paraskeva argues that by doing so the state would trigger the collapse of the SIF. He maintains that the banks and the state are at fault for the financial meltdown and he considers taking money from off the SIF as an attack on the people.

A government source has said case is far more complicated than it looks and that the troika does not even consider the debt to the SIF as part of the island’s national debt but merely a “logistical anomaly that needed to be rectified.”

The source said the state never intended to pay back the debt and that taking money from the SIF was a common practice in many countries. If the state didn’t get the money from the SIF it would probably have to raise taxes. Also, the source said the state would always be there to provide the necessary benefits.

But Paraskeva is not convinced.

“If the state didn’t plan to pay the money back then it shouldn’t borrow it in the first place. That’s the people’s money and the people want it back. The government should be working on a strategy for returning the money to SIF not writing the debt off because they weren’t planning on paying it back anyway. That’s what I think, that’s why I got into this and I don’t care what any unnamed government official has to say,” he said.

A jail sentence is the least of Paraskeva’s troubles should the court case goes sour, since he is also very likely to end up unemployed. A lawyer who specialises in cases of ill-treated immigrants, he has clashed on numerous occasions with former immigration head Annie Shiakalli. Paraskeva could also face disbarment should he end up in jail.

“Believe it or not, a criminal offence is not grounds enough for a lawyer to be disbarred,” he said. “I know of lawyers who have done much worse and are still allowed to practice. It’s all up to the Cyprus Bar Association really. They are the ones calling the shots. After I receive a jail sentence verdict they might allow me to continue my practice or make an example out of me and revoke my licence. I honestly don’t know what their intentions are. I guess we’ll find out,” he mused.

Paraskeva appeared in court on November 15. Around 60 other people went along to support him, including ten Iranian immigrants.

“You have to realise that we the people have the power. We can actually force the state to behave. Now, around 50 people refuse to pay their social insurance contribution. Imagine if that number was in the thousands,” Paraskeva wrote in his blog, osr55.wordpress, in a post titled “United we stand divided we fall”.

OSR stands for “Only Solution Revolution”.

He is also heading a 11-person committee called Initiative for the Social Control and Self-Management of the Social Insurance Fund, which has already sent letters to all competent authorities demanding SIF legislation reform so it can be audited.

He will not compromise.  “If you want to be a slave, and a worm, and to crawl, then go ahead and do it, my friend – but I don’t accept that. OK? I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, and let them do what they want to me.”

The court has adjourned until February 2, 2015.

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