By Elias Hazou
NOTHING highlights the ruthless and indiscriminate nature of the 2013 banking ‘haircut’ more than the way it ensnared the 33 Helios orphans in its net.
The compensation they received for the deaths of their parents after Helios Airways flight 522 crashed into a Greek mountain on the morning of August 14, 2005, killing all 121 people aboard, was scalped along with all other deposits over €100,000 in the Bank of Cyprus and the former Laiki bank, as part of Cyprus’ bailout in March 2013.
With the tenth anniversary of the Helios disaster falling next Friday, the Sunday Mail followed up with some of the relatives, asking whether anything has happened in relation to their longstanding request to be exempted/reimbursed from the bail in. The answer: nothing.
George Nicolaou, 62, is the granddad of his namesake, who lost both his parents and sister in the crash. The approximately €1 million in compensation awarded to little George was ‘shaved off’ by about half during the 2013 bail-in, when depositors’ money was seized to recapitalise Bank of Cyprus.
The money is gone, probably for good by the looks of it. Two years and change after the haircut, and dozens of letters to ministers and MPs later, Nicolaou’s family has gotten nowhere.
Nicolaou, a former heavy vehicle driver, is now retired, suffering from spinal problems. He qualifies for a partial invalidity benefit, and gets a cheque for €485 every month. His wife left work several years ago to care for their grandkids.
His grandson, now 11 years old, also gets an orphan benefit of around €350 from the state.
The Nicolaou family get by, somehow, with help from their daughter and her husband.
They’re extremely bitter with the system as a whole, feeling the state has forsaken them. After chasing officials up and down, Nicolaou’s son-in-law was told verbally by a finance ministry official that the case of little George does not meet the criteria for exemption from the haircut.
“We’ve all but given up…it’s not worth it anymore,” a despondent Nicolaou said.
Both he and his son-in-law, Loizos, can barely mask their disgust with politicians for giving them the runaround.
Loizos told the Mail that he cannot even stand listening to them speak anymore.
“Recently, the First Lady announced that a scholarship fund would be set up for the orphans of the Helios and Mari disasters. She did this during an event at Latsia held under her auspices.
“Why under her auspices? What has she, or the President, ever done for these orphans? We’re so sick and tired of the posturing,” said Loizos.
He also revealed that a while back, during the Christofias presidency, people from now-ruling DISY – then the opposition party – had approached the family and prodded them to go public with their grievances over the way the authorities were dealing with the legal proceedings over the Helios crash.
Such a move would presumably have hurt the communist AKEL government of the time.
“We refused. First, we didn’t want to make a big circus, for the sake of George, who is now old enough to understand. Second, we knew they just wanted to take advantage of us to score political points. We’re not playing their game. Now, with the new government, it seems the roles are switched.”
Nicolaou says that since the 2005 calamity, fewer and fewer politicians show up at the yearly candle-lighting ceremony honouring the Helios dead.
Last year, only a couple of MPs attended.
“They know they’ll get an earful, so they stay away,” he remarked.
Vasilis Koutsoftas, 63, and his wife Chrystalla lost their only son, daughter-in-law and five-year-old granddaughter, Chryso, in 2005. To this day they have been raising their grandson, Vassilis, who is now a little over 12.5 years old.
Like the other grandparents, this couple put the total sum of compensation money their family received for their loss, in their grandson’s name. For safekeeping, they put the money in a fixed term deposit at the Bank of Cyprus.
The Koutsoftas family also lost 47.5 per cent of their savings when the bail-in happened.
For the grandson’s compensation, which was likewise eviscerated, they wrote to the President, the finance minister, all the MPs, even the Archbishop.
“No one can tell us anything. Utter silence,” complained Koutsoftas.
What seems to aggravate these people most is the non-committal stance they get. Invariably, it’s never a definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – at least not in writing – when they ask that the compensation be spared from the haircut.
Neoclis Neocleous recounts a similar story. The 64-year-old is the guardian of his two granddaughters, aged 13 and 11.
His daughter, the girls’ mother, and son-in-law, their father, was killed in the Helios crash. When the girls received compensation in the region of €1 million each for their parents’ death, he put all the money in Laiki bank for safekeeping. This sum was the total compensation received by all the relatives of the girls’ parents. The relatives kept none of the money themselves, preferring instead to give it to the orphaned girls.
In February 2013, worried about the dire news on the economy, he tried to move the money from Laiki, but his hands were tied because the cash was in his granddaughters’ name and he needed permission from the court to get access to it. A month later, the compensation money evaporated in the bail-in.
“This money belongs to minors under the state’s protection. Really, it’s sacrilege for the state to take it, troika or no troika,” said Neocleous.
“How many orphans are there in Cyprus? You mean to tell me they couldn’t have exempted them from the haircut…what, because otherwise the economy would have tanked?”
Recently, Neocleous got a letter from the secretary of the Cabinet, informing him that a special panel was being set up to ‘look into’ possibly exempting, after the fact, the orphans from the haircut.
“Personally, I’m not optimistic. There is no justice in this country. And it’s not about the money [the orphans’ compensation] per se, but what it represents. This was supposed to be put aside for the girls’ future.”
The Mail understands, from government sources, that this panel will include the Accountant-general and the secretariat of the Cabinet.
It will review cases of Helios dependents, both minors and non-minors. The affected relatives will furnish the panel with all requested documentation.
The panel is expected to start operating in September. The final say on reimbursing Helios relatives for money lost in the haircut will rest with the Cabinet, that is, by executive decision. Any funds would presumably come from the finance ministry, but details are as yet sketchy.
Given this is an ad hoc arrangement – no relevant laws or ordinances will be passed – the same sources conceded the move could have come earlier.
Asked by the Mail whether this is just a flash in a pan, the source said:
“Look it at this way, if it were empty promises it could just as well backfire [on the government], so no, we are serious about this.”
Nice comeback, but watch this space.