By Angelos Anastasiou
Claims of abuse, physical violence towards detainees, and improper use of tear gas, are included in a report on Cyprus by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), released on Tuesday.
The CPT performed spot checks in various detention facilities, including police departments, the Central Prisons in Nicosia, the Menoyia immigrants’ detention centre, and the state mental-health facility in Athalassa from September 23 to October 1, 2013 to prepare its report.
In one instance recorded in the report, the CPT delegation “found an unlabelled baseball bat and a set of samurai swords in an interrogation room at Ayia Napa police station […] the presence and purpose of which could not be explained by the police officers on duty.
“Apart from inviting speculation about improper conduct on the part of police officers, such objects are a potential source of danger to staff and detained persons alike,” the report noted.
In its response, the Cyprus government said these were merely confiscated evidence.
“The baseball bat and the set of samurai swords found during the visit in a room at Ayia Napa police station were evidence from cases investigated by the police,” the response read.
“They have already been removed and properly disposed,” it added. “It is worthwhile (sic) noting that the items were found in a room that was not used for detention or interrogation purposes.”
But the response did not address the fact that the officers at the Ayia Napa police station had been unable to explain the “presence and purpose” of the items when asked.
A series of allegations of physical abuse by police officers, mostly from foreign detainees who reported being slapped, punched and kicked in the head mainly by members of the immigration and aliens police (YAM) and of the Crime Investigation Department (CID), were also included in the report.
The report made extensive reference to an incident at the Central Prisons on August 15, 2013, when a peaceful protest in the prison yard by the inmates was met with what the CPT perceived as excessive force.
“An examination of the CCTV shows prison officers dragging prisoners out of the yard by their arms and/or legs and of several prisoners being subjected to a punch or a kick while being restrained by staff,” the report said.
“The delegation also heard that pepper spray and guard dogs were used to end the peaceful protest,” it added.
The committee’s report cited the example of one prisoner by way of illustrating the claim of excessive force during the August 15 incident.
“One prisoner alleged that when he was returning from working in the kitchen, five prison officers from the intervention team intercepted him, handcuffed his hands behind his back and proceeded to deliver blows to various parts of his body with truncheons and shields,” the report said.
“They also apparently kicked him in the lower back with their metal toe-capped boots and dragged him along the ground by his handcuffed arms.
“Upon examination by one of the delegation’s medical doctors, the prisoner in question still displayed evidence of injuries allegedly inflicted on August 15 (i.e. some six weeks after the incident).”
The justice ministry responded that, although “no prisoner was beaten” and “forensic tests did not substantiate the allegations of the inmates”, it proceeded immediately with the “adoption of measures to guarantee the handling of similar incidents in the future of a more appropriate manner and with respect to human rights.”
With regard to foreign nationals arrested for breaching immigration law, several claims of physical violence and verbal abuse were brought to the attention of the CPT during its visit.
The justice ministry responded that four complaints were investigated by the Attorney General in 2013, resulting in the prosecution of one police officer for the offence of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
An incident of seemingly improper use of tear gas at Menoyia was also reported. The justice ministry did not address the incident in its response.
Despite improvements, overcrowding in the Central Prisons remained an issue, with 523 inmates for 324 places, and the CPT recommended that “the Cypriot authorities adopt and implement a coherent strategy designed to combat prison overcrowding”.
The justice ministry said current capacity at the prisons is 469, and the latest available data suggest that the population of inmates was 537 in April 2014.
Allegations of prison officers carrying out searches in prison cells wearing masks and bearing no means of identification caused the committee to express “serious misgivings” in its report.
“Prison officers wear masks when carrying out specific searches only when needed following risk assessment and not on everyday searches,” was the justice ministry’s response, which did not address the need for identification – “by number or mark” – raised by the CPT.