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Plenum to vote on lifting communications privacy

Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou

By Angelos Anastasiou

A government bill allowing the court-ordered lifting of communications privacy, so that prosecutors can access and submit written communication data as evidence in court, will be forwarded to the plenum on Thursday.

Such data may include emails, SMS texts, and online chats.

During a House Legal Affairs committee session on Wednesday, Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou and Attorney-general Costas Clerides argued that voting the bill into law will strengthen evidence presented in court in a wide range of cases, particularly with regard to prosecuting individuals thought to be involved in the collapse of the Cyprus economy in 2013.

Nicolaou told lawmakers that lifting confidentiality will only be permissible on the strength of a court order, and assured them that it includes safeguards to ensure its clauses cannot be abused.

In his remarks, Clerides said that discussion of the bill’s provisions is bound to be counter-productive, adding that, as the law stands at present, it has created serious problems in investigating serious criminal cases.

Following the session, Nicolaou told reporters that lifting confidentiality and monitoring communications were regulated in 2010, by amending article 17 of the Constitution in such a way as to allow both under certain conditions and controls.

“We are preparing a bill that will not allow interventions in communications, except for offences provided for in article 17, which include drug-trafficking, person trafficking, corruption, homeland security, and monetary stability,” he said.

The justice minister explained that a court order will authorise particular individuals to snoop on private communications, for a specified period of time, and for specific offences, while safeguarding against abuse.

“Such safeguards will include the procedure for disposing of any information gathered that is unrelated to the case,” Nicolaou said.

He explained that if a court order in connection to drug-trafficking leads investigators to find out that the suspect has committed theft, his private data will be inadmissible in court as theft is not listed in article 17.

Nicolaou asserted that a radical overhaul is necessary so that offences that go unpunished can be investigated, and explained that phone-tapping can allow for the investigation of cases relating to corruption in sports games.

“Without lifting confidentiality, and without utilising telephone data, no case of corruption in sports could be solved,” he said.

Committee chairman Soteris Sampson said the reservations aired in the session relating to the bill’s definition of homeland security were withdrawn when the justice minister accepted a clause mandating the courts to define it as necessary.

AKEL deputy Aristos Damianou said the proposed amendments effectively abolish confidentiality.

“Giving prosecutors additional tools is one thing, and abolishing privacy is another,” he said.

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