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Our View: Time we had proper authority to deal with police

The CCTV footage of the two policemen viciously beating up a man in a police cell in Polis would have shocked everyone who saw it. It was another case of police brutality and abuse of power, which many people had thought no longer took place. After the public uproar caused by the high profile case of 2005 in which some eight policemen were filmed violently beating up two young men late at night on a Nicosia street the state took measures to tackle abuses of power by police, which, quite clearly, have not worked.

In 2006 the Independent Authority for the Investigation of Allegations and Complaints Against the Police (IAIACAP) was set up to look into claims against the police, the government having realised that the police command could not be trusted to conduct unbiased investigations involving its officers. The Authority, made up of people with a legal background and no links to the police, would investigate allegations and bring charges when it found evidence of wrongdoing or abuse of power.

The decision was welcomed as the public, justifiably, had no trust in police investigations against policemen. The Polis beating, however, raised big questions about the effectiveness of IAIACAP, which was exposed as a slow-moving and indecisive body that seemed to defer to the police rather than act like a tough watchdog body. The facts surrounding the Polis investigation highlighted these weaknesses. The complaint by the claimant’s lawyer was submitted to IAIACAP on February 13, 2014 and six days later the Attorney-General gave written instructions to the Authority to investigate.

The report by the criminal investigator was prepared and submitted to the AG 15 months later, in May this year. Within a month the AG gave instructions to the Authority to bring criminal charges against the two policemen for causing grievous bodily harm, torture and humiliating treatment of a suspect but it took the Authority another month-and-a-half to do so. While the IAIACAP was carrying out its investigation, the claimant had been tried for resisting arrest and assaulting policemen and on Tuesday was given an 18-month suspended jail sentence.

The fact that the case against him was dealt with so speedily while his complaint was still being investigated is an example of how the Authority, inadvertently, sides with the police. If the claimant goes on trial before the investigation of his complaint has been completed he is at a disadvantage – he may be obliged to reach a settlement or be persuaded to withdraw a complaint against the police on the promise of reduced charges and/or lighter sentence. In short, the way the Authority operates helps the police rather than a claimant even though it is difficult to have both cases tried at the same time.

Police have been known to abuse their powers in most countries and what happened in Polis was not unique to Cyprus. However, in most developed democracies there are powerful bodies monitoring police behaviour which take prompt and tough action whenever such incidents are reported. The threat of punitive measures works as a deterrent for policemen but in Cyprus this does not seem to be the case.

The chairman of IAIACAP, Andreas Spyridakis, justifying the delay in the Polis investigation, said the Authority had more than 250 cases to deal with. Even if half of these complaints were fictitious – brought by suspects in the hope of putting pressure on the police – it would still leave more than a hundred legitimate cases. This number would suggest that policemen were still abusing their power because they were not concerned about the consequences as IAIACAP is ineffectual and not feared by them. If officers felt they could not get away with violent and abusive behaviour there would not be so many complaints before the Authority.

After the footage of the policemen administering their beating was made public, the justice minister, the chief of police and the chairman of the Authority all said it was a “shameful” abuse of power which was “an affront to Cypriot society”. Nobody could disagree with them, but what they conveniently omitted to mention was that it was also shameful that a democratic state that wants to protect its citizens has failed to set up an independent Authority that deals promptly and effectively with complaints against the police for abuses of power.

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