Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou said on Sunday it would take collective cooperation to stamp out corruption in the police and this would need to involve the judiciary, state institutions and parliament.
Speaking in Paralimni, after the memorial for the Helios air-crash victims, Nicolaou said: “We are preparing a package of measures and we have already prepared draft legislation to be submitted to the political parties to hear their views. What we say is that to be able to tackle this huge problem that exists in the police, it is necessary to take effective measures.”
The measures, he added, could help but “in order to bring about results we need to have the cooperation of all political parties”.
Asked whether the bills would be ready when the cabinet resumes, Nicolaou said they would first need legal vetting.
“Our effort should be a holistic approach to this problem with the collective cooperation and assistance of all, that is, state institutions, parliament and the judiciary,” he added.
Earlier on Sunday, Politis published an interview with Nicolaou and two former justice ministers, Nicos Koshis and Sophocles Sophocleous on the issue of organised crime following the June assassination of businessman Phanos Kalopsidiotis and a police officer and his wife, who were dining with him at an Ayia Napa restaurant.
To compound matters, it was reported last week that the hitmen had been tipped off mistakenly by a Cypriot policeman who thought he was calling Interpol in Serbia which had sent Cyprus police a tip-off about the planned hit in April this year. This led the assassins to call off the killing until June.
The debacle has raised the issue of police ties to organised crime on the island.
The Politis article said underworld bosses in Cyprus had gained enormous economic power to the point where they are able to present themselves as ’eminent businessmen’ who are often valued contributors to political parties and ‘valuable allies’ of the police in obtaining information.
They control nightlife, illegal betting, prostitution, drug trafficking, protection rackets and sex trafficking, the paper said, and through money laundering are able to present themselves as honest and decent citizens who in some cases are involved in charitable works.
Many people in society at large are aware of who these people are but do not discuss it, the paper said, and evidence that could lead to their arrests always seems to get ‘lost’.
A key role in this theatre are members of the police who eat together with crime bosses and exchange information while very few are caught and punished.
In the interview, Nicolaou admitted that there was ‘leaking of information to the underworld”.
He said that despite some measures having been taken they were not as effective “to the extent that we want”.
The minister said there had been a lot of focus on the prosecution of specific forms of criminal activities, such as gambling, illegal services such as private security guards, trafficking in persons and drugs.
“All these types of activities result in a significant economic benefit to criminals. At the same time an attempt was made to address cases of police members who facilitated in any way criminal activities.”
This included the training of 3,000 officers who were equipped to address the corruption phenomena, such as for example how to institute more effective controls to more easily identify acts of corruption.
In addition, a zero tolerance policy was implemented when it came to issues of abuse of power. “Indeed we had in specific cases members of the police prosecuted,” he said.
At the same time, he said, certain recruitment criteria were introduced in order to minimise outside interference in the process, plus new ways that helped in finding if applicants due to their personal circumstances could be prone to corruption. Ongoing evaluations are part of the same process, he said.
“What we have seen from the first moment is that all these measures alone are not as effective as we would like. For this purpose we proceeded to complete a study in 2016 and submitted it to the President of the Republic at the end of June, which indicates the size and type of corruption in the police,” said Nicolaou.
Asked about the conclusions, Nicolaou acknowledged there seemed to be links to the underworld.
“This study showed that in addition to the measures taken, there needs to be a holistic approach to the problem of corruption, especially issues related to the underworld.”
The new measures, involving an internal audit service comprising “people of high moral character with substantial power”, will include powers to lift privacy restrictions in suspected corruption cases.
Disciplinary penalties for officers will also be less lenient than they are now. Another key issue in fighting corruption is the closing of ranks by officers. Nicolaou said that to get around this, there would be a mechanism put in place for anonymous complaints.
Former minister Nicos Koshis, who held the post from 1997 to 2002, told Politis that if action was not taken now things would only get worse. He said the ‘godfathers’ controlled many sectors and were moving around in armoured cars and owing villas worth hundreds of thousands.
“Everywhere in the world there is organised crime. But now in Cyprus I believe that it has become disproportionate. This country is small and this type of crime should be very limited,” he said.
Koshis said everyone knew who they were and the economic power they held. “But you must have the courage to fight organised crime,” he said. “To get someone to testify [against them] is difficult. People are scared.”
“We need to effectively start the war against organised crime otherwise nothing will be left that is not controlled by them. This means that the police force should first cleanse itself.”
This, he said, would help limit the scope and influence of the criminals as would leaks from the authorities, all of which would give people more confidence in the justice system.
Koshis also said politicians should also stop interfering in the work of the police when it came to nepotistic transfers and promotions.
“But we now know that organised crime is financing political parties and some politicians keep company with these ‘entrepreneurs’ we know are criminals,” he added.
Sophocles Sophocleous who was justice minister from 2006 to 2008 told Politis that as long as police were above the law, they could not serve the law.
He said police and the state had a duty to face the underworld with courage and determination.
“If it is proved, or even if there are strong indications, that officials or people who are mandated to defend legality, such as the police, have any relationship with those we describe, it is not only unacceptable, but illegal and criminal. If we get to this point, we get what we deserve,” he said.
Asked why police and prosecutors have difficulty in bringing underworld figures to justice, especially as they appeared to be known to everyone by name, Sophocleous said: “Each case in legal terms must be documented and let’s not forget the axiom that everyone is innocent until proven otherwise. But I think this is the time to say that the glass has overflowed. There should be more collective responsibility. I would propose an alliance which you may call ‘an alliance of clean hands’ made up of politicians and government with a single goal to put a stop to all this.”