Opposition MPs on Monday piled on Justice Minister Emily Yiolitis for having reported to authorities a Twitter parody account – leading to police raiding the home of a Larnaca woman – with one lawmaker branding the minister a ‘threat to democracy’.
Attending what turned out to be a raucous session of the House human rights committee were among others Yiolitis, police chief Stelios Papatheodorou, and Niki Zarou, the woman whose home was searched by police in late December after the minister filed the complaint.
Under oath, the police officer had requested a search warrant for Zarou’s house from a district court, on the grounds of suspected impersonation and personal data violations. The offending Twitter account clearly states it is a parody.
The supreme court subsequently voided the police warrant, finding that it had been issued wrongfully by Larnaca district court as the document did not cite the specific reasons for the search and seizure. The raid had taken place in late December, with police seizing Zarou’s electronic devices and those of her children.
In parliament on Monday, Papatheodorou conceded that police may have overreached: “We as the police should be more careful in the future.”
Asked whether the police had sought guidance from the attorney-general before acting, the police chief said no.
“Perhaps it would have been better had we gone [to the attorney-general]. I wish we had, because the instructions might have been different.”
Yiolitis has taken flak not only for reporting to police a social media account, but moreover the fact that as justice minister she is the political supervisor of the police force – raising questions of abuse of power.
The minister defended her conduct saying she acted to protect the reputation of her family and loved ones.
She told MPs she felt she had nothing to apologise for.
“Is there anyone in society who would tolerate having their father and mother being derided, under cover of satire? This is not satire – close family of mine were being offended,” she said.
It’s understood the Twitter post mocked her father among others.
The minister said the parody account used photos of her mother. Whereas those photos were already posted online, the manner in which they were used by the Twitter spoof account was offensive.
“My intention is not to prosecute the person administering the account in question,” Yiolitis offered.
The embattled minister stated she filed her complaint to police on December 4. But she denied having exerted any pressure on the police from that point forward.
Covering the proceedings, the Cyprus News Agency said the search warrant was issued on December 27. But the Cyprus Mail understands the warrant was issued on December 23, and executed on December 27.
Seeking to demonstrate her own hands-off approach, Yiolitis juxtaposed her case with that of other politicians filing complaints about social media posts against them, and where police acted within 24 hours.
The minister went on to reveal that threats have been made against her life. She cited a slogan spray-painted on a main road in Limassol that reads: “Yiolitis, we live to see you dead.”
Speaking to reporters later, Yiolitis described the committee session as a show trial.
“They [MPs] came primed for a quarrel, for populism and distraction.”
For his part, the police chief submitted to legislators a list of 200 names – persons who filed complaints after receiving perceived or alleged threats online. Fifty of these individuals are politicians.
Papatheodorou said the police are considering filing away the parody account case with no further action.
“We are in consultation with the attorney-general’s office about that and, given that the complaint has been withdrawn and also the difficulties in securing hard proof, we shall ask the attorney-general that investigations be halted.”
Defending the search and seizure warrant, another police official said they had assessed certain information about the administrator behind the Twitter account and had acted based on probable cause.
However the police appeared to be tiptoeing around the issue.
Zarou, the woman whose home was raided, again challenged police to produce any evidence showing she was the account administrator – something she has steadfastly denied.
She said Yiolitis should be “ashamed” for what she did.
Zarou now plans to sue the state over her ordeal.
One by one, MPs from main opposition Akel excoriated the minister for her conduct.
Addressing the minister directly, Akel’s Eleni Mavrou said: “You have not realised what you have done, that your actions led to the trampling of human rights, abuse of power, institutional intimidation, and what dangers this poses to democracy.
“You are a threat a democracy. This is both infuriating and terrifying.”
Weighing in, lawyer Achilleas Demetriades, head of the bar association’s human rights committee, said Yiolitis had reported to police something that does not constitute a criminal offence, but rather free speech.
“If the minister does not know this, it worries me even more.”