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Mother given minutes to say goodbye to extradited son

Joshua with his mother Vivina before his arrest over three years ago

After three years in custody without trial, a young Cypriot man finally gave up and allowed himself to be the first Cypriot ever to be extradited to the US

On Thursday, July 16, Vivina Polloso received the phone call she had been dreading since January 2018.

She was told she had just hours to get to the airport if she wanted to see her 20-year-old son for the last time before he was taken from prison in Nicosia and extradited to the US.

“If you want to see your son go to the airport before 4am,” Polloso, 57, was told.

“I managed to see my son for the last time for only two to three minutes!” the devastated mother told the Sunday Mail.

“I just managed to hug him and kiss him goodbye. It was devastating, heart-breaking!”

In the early hours of July 17, Joshua Epiphaniou – half Filipino, half Greek Cypriot – duly became the first ever Cypriot citizen to be extradited to the US where he faces charges for cyber-crimes in Arizona and Georgia, allegedly committed from his bedroom in Nicosia when he was still a minor.

Epiphaniou had been held in custody for three years without a trial and without a conviction for any offence, said one of his lawyers, Elena Erotokritou.

It is the saddest of ironies that the young computer whizz, who also has Asperger’s, effectively signed his own ‘death warrant’ by giving up on the tortuous appeal that was in progress over his extradition order.

That he took such drastic action, against the advice of Erotokritou, is the result of a justice system that abandoned him, she said.

“Had he been born into a well off, high society Cypriot family, it would have been different,” Erotokritou said.

On November 18, 2019 ­– two-and-a-half years after he was first arrested – the judge presiding over the US’ extradition application ruled that Epiphaniou should stand trial in the US. 

Epiphaniou’s lawyers immediately lodged a supreme court appeal against the judgement as well as an appeal against the rejection of a habeas corpus application.

But the years in custody appear to have worn away at Epiphaniou – as he became increasingly anxious and depressed.

In the end, Epiphaniou withdrew his appeal which set in motion his extradition to the US last week.

“When the law gives you a chance, take it to the very end,” a saddened and frustrated Erotokritou told the Sunday Mail.

For Epiphaniou, however, the decision to withdraw his appeal was one of a desire to reach some form of resolution – either way.

Michael Chambers, another lawyer for Epiphaniou, can understand the young man’s reasoning.

“[He] withdrew his appeal in Cyprus as he was frustrated and fed up that this issue was just going on and on,” he said.

“He was in custody for so many years, he wanted to get the whole thing over and done with – go to the US and either serve his time over there or come back.”

Joshua was kept in Nicosia prison for over three years without a trial

Mired in a Kafkaesque situation, Epiphaniou saw a way out: out of the central prisons, out of a country which he believed would not stand up for him and – hopefully – one step closer to achieving freedom.

He was frustrated in Cyprus, Chambers said, because things were not moving.

“He was worried that had the appeal not been successful it would just have been a waste of another two years.”

It’s not only Epiphaniou who was frustrated though. Friends, family and lawyers involved in the case point to myriad perceived injustices.

“The frustration, the stress and what he’s been going through in prison with murderers and these types of people – imagine a 17-year-old who usually spent all his time in his bedroom? He was locked up with criminals, people picking on him,” Chambers said.

Epiphaniou was first arrested in May 2017, when he was 17, and charged with being behind a DDos attack (distributed denial of service) in Cyprus on Cablenet which rendered their telephony and internet services useless for around 12 hours.

After his IP was traced by Cablenet techs who were trying to fix their systems, a slew of other suspect information came to light.

Following his arrest, the FBI said they suspected him of being behind hacking offences in Georgia and Arizona allegedly committed between 2014 and 2016 when he was between 14 to 17 years old.

Epiphaniou is accused of stealing thousands of dollars from at least five US firms by illegally accessing their internal systems and by blackmailing them with data leak threats.

He allegedly caused more than $550,000 in losses to the victim websites.

Some €69,000 in cash was found in his home.

Epiphaniou was released on bail for the Cypriot offences but then promptly rearrested and detained when the US filed an extradition order in January 2018. The procedure followed the 2013 amendment to the Cyprus constitution to allow for the extradition of Cypriot nationals to a European country or to a third country on the basis of a European arrest warrant or on the basis of a bilateral or multilateral treaty that the republic has signed.

Epiphaniou’s Asperger’s was never fully taken into account, his lawyers say, while his mother told the Sunday Mail that while in prison Epiphaniou once ended up in Nicosia general hospital with broken ribs and spitting blood.

“He was often put in isolation… probably as a way to protect himself,” she said.

The central prisons director was not available for comment.

So how did his last day in Cyprus unfold?

Epiphaniou’s mother told the Sunday Mail how she had received a phone call on July 16, at about 4:30pm, from the prison to ask for his passport.

“They were asking it from me? How? The police already took all his documents since they arrested him three years ago!”

She received another call shortly after, at 5pm, and was told: “If you want to see your son go to the airport before 4am.”

Joshua with his mother Vivina before his arrest

Polloso told the Sunday Mail that she was in a state of shock and didn’t know if what she was hearing was true. She hadn’t spoken to him since July 1 during a court appearance over his appeal.

Even Epiphaniou’s lawyers were not informed about the extradition, his mother said.

The whirlwind of events which followed are reminiscent of a fever dream.

Polloso described how she went to the airport at 3am on July 17 but no information about her son was available to her. She said she was then told to leave.

“I was crying but they were shouting at me to leave.”

Distraught, she eventually left and was half-way back to Nicosia when the police called her to go back to the airport and pick up Epiphaniou’s clothes.

Upon arrival, the same officer who had originally told her to leave then said she could see her son.

“I managed to see my son for the last time for only two to three minutes,” she said.

“They gave me his clothes – which they brought from prison – in a blue plastic rubbish bag. He was extradited with nothing but the clothes he was wearing. My son is gone.”

Polloso has lived in Cyprus since 1989 – a lifetime – and points out that her son’s father is a Greek Cypriot even though he had no active role in Joshua’s life. Her son was born in Cyprus and Cyprus is his home. He is a Cypriot.

“But my son was always treated as ‘the Filipino’, as a foreigner [and] not a Cypriot.”

Erotokritou says that more should have been done for the young man and that he should be given a second chance.

So how bleak is the young man’s future?

Epiphanou had his court arraignment in Georgia,US on Tuesday with his US lawyer Stephen P Johnson trying to negotiate a time served sentence with the prosecution.

Epiphaniou is accused of stealing thousands of dollars from at least five US firms by illegally accessing their internal systems and blackmailing them

Chambers told the Cyprus Mail on Wednesday that he and Johnson, “are optimistic regarding the outcome of the case”.

Furthermore, Chambers said his US colleague has also requested some documents from Cyprus proving the defendant has Asperger’s syndrome, in an attempt to further mitigate the prosecution’s requests.

No date has yet been set for the next court appointment, Chambers said.

His youth at the time of the alleged crimes, having Asperger’s and time served should all be taken into account, his lawyers say.

But Epiphaniou has thrown himself onto the mercy of the US justice system. The maximum sentence for the charges he faces is 20 years.

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