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Our View: Government has failed to provide strong moral leadership

editorial riot police limassol
Riot police in Limassol

It appears the rule of law that government politicians like to boast about is suspended when racist thugs go on the rampage beating up foreigners and smashing up their properties, police taking the role of disinterested bystanders. When this happens once, police could be given the benefit of the doubt – they were unprepared or there were inadequate numbers to take on the mob – but when the same scenario unfolds twice in the space of a few days, questions are raised about the orders of the force’s command.

Last Sunday in Chlorakas, according to eyewitnesses, police stood by and watched as thugs smashed up a café owned by a Syrian and did not try to stop another group entering the home of Syrian migrants. They finally intervened, five minutes later, after the home had been vandalised. Police were more active the following night – there was a bigger presence – when rival groups clashed in the village and arrested about 20 people for their involvement in the violence.

On Friday night in Limassol police reverted to the bystander approach, allowing the racist mob to run wild along the seafront and this time there were no mitigating circumstances. Police command knew well in advance there would be an anti-migrant demonstration and ensured there was a heavy police presence in the town. Officers were equipped with anti-riot gear, and the police’s water cannon truck Aiantas was parked in the area – the truck was not deployed, even though it had been used against peaceful anti-lockdown demonstrators a couple of years ago.

This was a violent riot that put lives of innocent people at risk, yet the police seemed reluctant to use the necessary force to stop the lawbreakers, who hurled Molotov cocktails, beat up people of colour they came across and set cars and motorbikes on fire. A group of Syrian men told the Cyprus Mail they saw their shop smashed to pieces, “while there were five police cars here and they didn’t do anything”.

Was this a case of dismal incompetence and abjectly poor operational planning by the police command? Were the officers afraid to clash with the racist thugs in balaclavas, chanting ‘Syrians out of Cyprus,’ who could have been arrested for incitement of racial hatred, even before they embarked on their gratuitous violence? A more sinister explanation could be that the police command gave orders to police not to use force against the demonstrators, unless it was absolutely necessary. Perhaps it sympathised with the demonstrators’ cause. This may sound a bit far-fetched, but the fact is that police allowed the situation to veer completely out of control before they decided to try to impose law and order.

Thirteen arrests were made, including the alleged organiser of the demonstration by Saturday lunchtime. Perhaps the critical comments in the media on Saturday – journalists covering the riot were also threatened by the demonstrators – about police inaction forced the police command into belated action. Of course, there were a lot more than 13 demonstrators engaging in law-breaking on Friday night.

President Christodoulides, who spoke about the disgraceful scenes we witnessed called an emergency meeting with the police command on Saturday. He also had another meeting on Tuesday with the chief of police and the attorney-general, after the two nights of violence in Chlorakas. After the meeting, it was announced that there was a plan in place to stop the violence and ensure the public’s safety, a plan that only seemed to apply to Chlorakas.

Regrettably, Christodoulides failed to provide strong moral leadership against the racist violence. He waited 24 hours before taking a stand on the Sunday night incidents in Chlorakas and even then, he condemned the violence generally, without actually censuring the racism that caused it. And he did the same on Saturday, when he spoke about the disgraceful incidents, suggesting that the violence was unjustified, not because it is unacceptable to attack migrants that are legally here, but because the government had taken effective measure to deal with migration. It was almost as if he was trying to appease the thugs by telling them that government was addressing their concerns.

Cyprus faces a migration problem, and this government has been dealing very effectively with it, drastically reducing the number of irregular migrants. But even if its policy was not as effective, there could be no justification for violence against migrants. This should have been the president’s position and he should also have underlined the contribution the tens of thousands of migrants are making to the economy, doing jobs that Cypriots refuse to do. The fact is that our economy would collapse if we followed the advice of Elam and the rest of the anti-migrant campaigners and kicked out the migrants.

Nobody dares mention this, as anti-migrant rhetoric has become so deeply rooted in the political system, that racist thugs believe they are legitimised to randomly beat up migrants. It is also probably the reason the police are not so keen on enforcing the law when migrants are being attacked.

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