By George Psyllides
Cigarette and tobacco smuggling is booming in Cyprus, costing the state millions in taxes and known individuals are behind it, MPs said on Tuesday.
The House Watchdog Committee discussed the issue in the wake of the seizure of 19.5 tonnes of tobacco in Aradippou in October, the largest haul to date.
“Let us not hide our heads in the sand,” AKEL MP Irini Charalambidou said. “There is a smuggling ring and there are known individuals hiding behind it.”
Charalambidou said chaos reigned supreme.
“Non-existent individuals register companies, non-existent individuals pay for car road tax, (state) services do not co-ordinate,” she said.
The AKEL MP was referring to the seizure of the 19.5 tonnes of tobacco and 63 boxes with 10,000 cigarettes each from a warehouse in Aradippou in October 2015.
Apart from one suspect, a 37-year-old Cypriot who was arrested at the time, authorities have so far failed to identify who, if any, was pulling the strings.
The suspect who was arrested in Aradippou, according to Charalambidou, was the same man, a special police constable, detained in October 2009 after authorities found 25,000 cartons of cigarettes in a warehouse in Tseri, Nicosia.
He has since been sacked from the force.
“The question is how hard is it to reach the person who employs him,” Charalambidou said.
And it appears that the state compromised in 2009. Then, authorities reportedly estimated the taxes to be around €700,000. The state offered to settle the case if the suspects paid €500,000.
They apparently refused and the state filed a case in court three years later, in June 2012.
The charge sheet included six individuals, among them a well known businessman, and a company.
“While the attorney-general recommended at the time to settle at €500,000, they refused to pay and when the charge sheet was filed in 2012 they (the defendants) decided to propose €350,000,” the MP said.
The charges were dropped.
According to Charalambidou, the authorities had been censured by the attorney-general for taking three years to present him with the case.
Committee chairman, DISY MP Giorgos Georgiou said cigarette smuggling flourished in Cyprus.
“Smuggling continues today but the most repulsive in this story is that the individuals and legal entities, with small alterations to the names of companies involved, concern the same people,” Georgiou said.
The DISY MP said the problem was that tax-free cigarettes were exported normally – and this was confirmed by customs – but while on the way to Egypt, “it seems they lose their way and either they change cargo midway, or they change ship, or they sail to the occupied areas where they are unloaded and find their way to warehouses in Tseri or Aradippou, or any other location in Cyprus.”
“Unfortunately, the primary source of this story has not been found despite all the indications,” Georgiou said, adding that OLAF, the European Anti-Fraud Office, has been informed and was investigating.