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Our View: Tough sentences should be the norm in child sex abuse cases

A delicate balance: Attorney-general Costas Clerides

PEOPLE were quite rightly outraged with the lenient sentence imposed by the Nicosia district court on a 68-year-old paedophile. The man, who pleaded guilty to charges of sexual exploitation of a minor and indecent assault, was given a 45 month prison sentence. In passing sentence, Judge Doros Theodorou cited as mitigating circumstances the advanced years of the defendant and his guilty plea which made a hearing unnecessary.

But did the mitigating circumstances justify such a short custodial sentence? The maximum sentence a district court could impose is five years and in his decision the judge noted that the attorney-general’s office could have referred the case for trial to the criminal court which could have imposed the maximum sentence stipulated by the law of 20 years imprisonment. Had the attorney-general’s office agreed to send the case to district court in exchange for a guilty plea that would have spared the girl from taking the witness stand and recounting the ordeal she had suffered?

It is understandable that this may have been a consideration, but the attorney-general should also have considered the risk of the sentence being considered extremely lenient, which is what happened. For some reason, the Cyprus courts have not been very tough on child abusers. In 2008 a music teacher was sentenced to only six months in prison for indecently assaulting two minors; in 2007, another teacher received a 13-month sentence for sexually abusing two boys.

Sentences have become tougher since an amendment to the law in 2009, which stipulated longer sentences. Another amendment tightening the law was passed last year, but did not apply to this case as the offences had been committed under the old law. This still did not justify the light sentence imposed. Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou, who as a deputy had played an instrumental role in the amendment of the laws, was so incensed with the court he overstepped his constitutional powers and urged the attorney-general to appeal against the sentence.

Such a decision belongs exclusively to the attorney-general and a minister has no business issuing orders. Then again, the minister’s reaction reflected the public anger over the sentence which the commissioner for the protection of the children’s rights described as “shocking”, and asked, “what message does this send to society?” A pertinent question which the attorney-general and judges need to consider. Judges must realise that there are no extenuating circumstances for the sexual abuse of children and should not even refer to these in their decision.

And sentences must be tougher if they are to act as some form of deterrent.

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