MPs have given the green light to the establishment of a dedicated police unit to handle cases of animal cruelty in what they said marked a step forward for animal welfare in Cyprus.

The amendment to the police bill was approved by 32 votes in favour and two abstentions late on Thursday.

The development was welcomed by Justice Minister Emily Yiolitis who also said the ministry was looking at increasing penalties for animal abuse.

Approval of the new unit follows years of lobbying by animal welfare groups who have long argued that only effective policing can address cases of animal neglect, abandonment and cruelty.

Under the amendment a special police unit will be set up and trained to enforce the law on animal protection. Earlier, the plenary narrowly approved an amendment by the Greens widening the cases that can be investigated.

The Greens amendment, approved by 16 votes in favour, 15 against and two abstentions, will authorise the Animal Police unit to investigate any violations of the law on the protection and welfare of animals and the law on dogs, and not just very serious violations.

Speaking in the plenary, Disy MP Demetris Demetriou said the establishment of animal police units was an important step forward which, while not resolving all the problems regarding animal rights, will help raise awareness and respect.

Akel MP Evanthia Savva said the law fell short of expectations as the police unit will only number 10 officers. However, her party voted in favour to send the right message and take the issue one step forward.

Edek MP Efstathios Efstathiou said that his party was abstaining as it considered the law counter-productive as it would result in cases being referred to the special unit for investigation whereas currently animal abuse is a criminal offence that must be investigated by the police officer receiving the complaint. A more effective way forward would have been to set up a service equivalent to the Game Service.

Greens MP Yiorgos Perdikis said the Animal Police was a long-standing demand of animal welfare groups. “We had hoped that a body would be set up with the participation of animal welfare groups which would lead to coordination in the implementation of the law on animal protection but instead the government chose to submit to the House inadequate legislation to set up a police unit,” he said.

In an announcement late Friday, the Animal Party welcomed the amendment as an important first step and said that March 18 would be recorded as a historic day for animal rights, with Cyprus ahead of other European states that do not yet have an animal police.

Such a unit was a party priority from the beginning, and was therefore welcome it said, adding that it hoped proposals it has submitted would be incorporated into the law to make it even more effective with the ultimate aim of transitioning towards establishing a body modelled on the Game Service.

Its proposals include putting animal rights on the curriculum of the police academy and creating the infrastructure, such as areas where animals removed from their owners because of violations of the law can be kept. Other proposals include defining the terms for cooperation with other bodies such as the vet department and local authorities and making provisions in the state budget.

“We have achieved a lot, but we still have a way to go,” it concluded.

For their part the Greens said Thursday’s decision was only a first step and much still needs to be done to create a genuine animal police.

In an announcement, the justice ministry said the unit will undergo special training so as to deal with serious animal welfare issues and will cooperate with district animal welfare committees and community policing. The special unit aims to be effective, satisfying a demand in society for animal protection and the punishment of those that abuse or illtreat them, it added.

The ministry, together with police and the veterinary services, is currently looking at increasing penalties for animal abuse.

Moreover, it said the signing and ratification of a protocol to investigate complaints on animal welfare issues was in its last stages. The protocol, which will be signed by all competent departments – the agriculture ministry, the veterinary services and police — will improve procedures on handling neglect and abuse and serve as a useful tool in strengthening animal protection.