By Andria Kades
ALL TOO often when a murder case hits the news, the public hears the killer had a history of mental illness or was known to police for previous violent offences.
The anger that often follows, primarily from the victims’ families, stems from the thought that the death could have been prevented if authorities had acted on earlier warnings.
Christakis Thoma, for instance, who admitted to stabbing three young men to death on the busy Anexartisias street in Limassol on Tuesday and was remanded on Friday had several run-ins with the police before.
The 31-year-old had been arrested five times in the space of the six months prior to the murder, all for cases relating to violence. In May, he and his father were involved in a fight with a restaurateur next to their own tavern when Thoma pulled out a knife, assaulting and injuring the man.
Police say they know there is a problem but there is nothing they can do.
“We arrest someone and we remand them, but then we have to wait until the case goes to court. We can’t keep them in prison, it’s illegal,” police spokeswoman Nicoletta Tyrimiou told the Sunday Mail.
Serious cases like murder are the exception of course. Thoma, for instance, will not be allowed out after his remand expires, but had the law been different he may have been detained when he was arrested in May and the killings this week prevented.
Another example is the taxi driver who in October killed a 25-year-old man when he drove his vehicle into the victim’s car in Limassol. He was drunk at the time, serving a suspended sentence and had already had his licence revoked prior to the incident. The taxi driver has been remanded and then freed pending his trial. There is nothing to stop him offending again.
“In cases like this they should be sent to prison immediately. The law doesn’t allow for that though and it should be changed,” said Tyrimiou.
Chairman of the Cyprus Bar Association Doros Ioannides told the Sunday Mail, there are no moves to change the law to keep suspects for serious offences like this detained until their trial, even if they could be deemed a danger to others.
Criminal cases take around a year to go to court, Ioannides said which means people suspected of committing major offences, like Thoma was earlier this year, are free to roam around.
“The only time someone remains in prison until the court case starts is if it’s very serious. A drug dealer for instance if allowed free is likely to continue selling drugs until the case begins,” said Ioannides.
If it is not deemed to be a very serious case, the suspect is usually released on bail and has to hand over their travel documents.
Cyprus has been in trouble with the EU over the length of time it takes for civil cases to even reach court.
“On average they take three to four years. Criminal cases however are much better compared to civil cases,” and their one year timeframe is much better than other European countries, Ioannides said.
Chairman of the House legal affairs committee Sotiris Sampson conceded that there may be a need for a fast track system allowing some more serious cases to go to court faster, but as a whole, there were no major delays.
“You can’t make a law for every single case and every possible version of reality,” he told the Sunday Mail, meaning it was a violation of human rights to detain in prison a suspect for a crime it has not been proved they have committed.
Asked to comment on the fact that Thoma had been arrested five times within six months indicating his tendency for violence, Sampson responded “he had been arrested five times in six months. If he had been arrested five? Or four? Or three or two? Where do we draw the line and how?”
He added, however, that the committee was ready at any time to consider amendments to existing laws on detention.
“We are waiting to hear from those involved in exercising the law whether it be police, the ministry of justice, legal services or courts. The committee is ready at any given moment to discuss this to help avoid such incidents,” he said.
Thoma was not only known to police for his violence and affiliation with drugs, but he also reportedly suffered from psychological problems.
The state mental health services have said he was never under their care, but a series of recent murders have been carried out by suspects who were supposed to be monitored by doctors.
Over the summer, a 30-year-old mentally unstable man allegedly shot an elderly couple to death – his aunt and uncle – in their village home at Ayios Ioannis in the Pitsilia area of Nicosia.
The suspect had been treated in the past at the state psychiatric hospital at Athalassa but later released.
Three years ago, a 26-year-old man was found hanged in his prison cell, a year after he killed his sister by hitting her over the head more than 50 times with a laptop in the family’s Nicosia home.
Jailed for 12 years for manslaughter, he, his sister and their quadriplegic mother were all under psychiatric observation and were receiving help from social services.
At the time of the murder, the Sunday Mail learned that the brother had stopped seeing his psychiatrist and taking his medication six months previously.
These are just two examples of several other similar cases.
Director of the mental health services Yiannis Kalakoutas rejects any suggestion that the service is not doing its job properly, adding that Cyprus’ mental health facilities are to be envied by other European Union member states.
“The system and local psychiatry services are an example to other EU countries,” he said.
When MP Stella Kyriakides visited Athalassa in October she said the facility could in no way be considered decent. “We think the current conditions at the Athalassa hospital … does not honour our society and we cannot talk of dignified living conditions,” she said.
Kalakoutas feels this is not the case at all.
He said the responsibility lies with the family and the police to refer a person they believe may be mentally unstable to the mental health services.
“A relative can either report their family member to police or if police arrest someone for an offence and believe he has signs of mental instability they can refer him to a state psychiatrist for a report,” he said.
Although only one state psychiatrist handles these cases, Kalakoutas said there were not many cases.
After a report is issued, the case is taken to court and evaluated by a judge who then decrees whether the individual will be sent to a facility or not.
Asked whether there have ever been any wrong calls, Kalakoutas said “Absolutely not. Judges have never taken wrong decisions.”
He also denies police may miss some signs of trouble from a potential suspect and not refer them to a psychiatrist.
Sampson says a lot of responsibility lies on families as well. “If a doctor says someone needs to be sent to a psychiatric facility, won’t the mother break down and beg the doctor to let them stay home? It’s a social stigma sometimes.”
Chrystodoulos Galatopoulos, a psychiatrist in the private sector says there is always room for improvement.
At the moment, there are two major problems in the state mental health sector he says.
“There is a lot of pressure and a lot of patients so doctors don’t have a lot of time.”
Additionally, specialists leave public hospitals and are replaced by younger people who lack experience – a problem seen across the health service and not just in mental health, Galatopoulos said.
The main question that psychiatrists have to answer is whether a patient is safe to leave a mental health facility. “Is it safe for them to go? Are they a danger to themselves or those around them?”
If they do something, it is often an impulsive act that maybe cannot be predicted and even if it is, the question of when is unanswerable.
“It could be 20 years from now, we can’t predict when,” he said.
Additionally, it is not always possible to monitor whether the patient takes their medication and even if they are monitored, they are seen once a month which is not enough to understand what is really going on in the patient’s life.
“Instead of putting people in facilities where they will eventually have to leave, we could keep them home and have them monitored by local psychiatrists. This is much better as it is in their natural environment,” Galatopoulos said.