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Fish farm ‘one of Cyprus’ biggest scandals’

New revelations from the passports debate came out at the meeting of the House audit committee on Thursday (Photo: Christos Theodorides)
File photo: House audit committee (Photo: Christos Theodorides)

State officials blatantly looked the other way to allow a Limassol fish farm to operate illegally for 15 years, and it is only now being investigated for money laundering allegations, high-level corruption and potentially criminal offences, MPs heard on Thursday.

In a tumultuous session at the House audit committee, tones were raised, sarcastic remarks flew and deputies lashed out over what Akel MP Irene Charalambides described as “an unprecedented scandal” that carried evidence of corruption across a number of state services.

“This is one of the biggest scandals we have ever had before us as a committee, if not the biggest of its kind”.

The case dates back to 2009 which marks the “beginning of the illegalities” according to Auditor-General Odysseas Michaelides where the fisheries department granted a permit which was renewed in 2021.

This set in motion a domino-effect that allowed a number of other state services to grant more permits, that has since seen the development of a 31,000 square-metre project across the Trimiklini and Sylikou communities that misuses state land and endangers public safety.

Cyprus’ money laundering police investigation unit (Mokas) is already examining allegations the large-scale fish farm has been engaged in laundering Russian money, deputies heard.

Additionally, the anti-corruption authority is stepping in to “immediately” begin its own investigations MPs were told, after the auditor-general’s damning report published in December highlighted a slew of illegalities including abuse of power from state officials.

Meanwhile, the attorney-general’s office has received at least six complaints over the matter from various government departments. The legal service will be tasked with examining whether criminal offences were carried out – as lawyers are apparently refusing to take on the case.

No one did anything

Michaelides did not hold back as he illustrated to deputies that the fisheries department failed to even recognise that one of the applications put forth by the businessman in question named Trimiklini as being in Paphos – where in fact it is in Limassol.

The next pages of the application however refer to the other community, Sylikou.

“If my daughter who is in school does not know where Trimiklini is, I can understand that…But to put my signature as a state official, as the director, on a piece of paper that says Trimiklini, Paphos, something isn’t right,” Michaelides told the fisheries department director Marina Argyrou.

Though Argyrou said the fisheries department asked for the attorney-general’s opinion on November 29 last year over revoking the permit and gave written warnings to the business in 2022, Michaelides said “the fisheries department knew from at least April 2019 that the businessman was operating illegally without taking any measures.”

Greens MP Stavros Papadouris interjected to say that the fish farm had even received an innovation award from the president – he did not specify which one – and the opening of the business was even done by a minister.

Agriculture ministry reacted ten years later

According to the report, the development also puts the public safety at risk as it uses the Kouris dam to supply water for its fish farm.

Consequently, the dam no longer has adequate water supply in case of a fire, thus putting public safety at risk.

In fact, Trimiklini was affected by a huge fire in August 2023 that scorched kilometres of land and had some 100 people evacuate their homes. In that same month, the auditor-general received the complaints over the fish farm and began investigating the matter.

Permanent secretary at the agriculture ministry Andreas Gregoriou said residents had actually made complaints about the water levels ten years ago.

He nonetheless said several meetings were held over the summer and the ministry ordered that legality in the area “should be restored.”

Gregoriou added that in December, cabinet commissioned a three-member committee to carry out an investigation over the auditor general’s findings. It has a two-month timeframe.

He underlined there would also be a meeting with the attorney general to explore criminal offences.

Paradoxically, the permit to use water from the Kouris dam was initially rejected by the water development department but after it was appealed, Agriculture Minister Nicos Kouyialis at the time approved it in 2017.

Michaelides said it was possible political persons interfered with technocratic matters, underlining this was something that institutions should be concerned about.

Lawyers afraid to touch the case

Meanwhile, the Limassol district office had also asked the attorney-general to explore criminal offences over the case back in August 2023 according to the city’s deputy district officer, Nikolas Tsioullas.

He said it has since been decided that state prosecutors will be tasked with taking the case to court, as two law firms have refused to take on the fish farm case.

Beyond the investigations over the apparent illegalities of the fish farm, a report has also been filed over the businessman himself.

Fisheries department officials had gone to visit the site in Trimiklini on September 19 and the owner approached the inspectors aggressively, even blocking them into the area, Argyrou said.

Police were called to the scene and the report has been forwarded to the legal service, she underlined.

A land registry official explained the government leased state land in the area for agriculture purposes but has instead been used for other commercial interests. This is being carried by a ‘first-degree relative’ of the businessman who instead offers wooden houses for accommodation and sauna rooms, along with an artificial lake and a restaurant. All of the facilities are illegal, the audit report highlights.

Diko MP Chrisis Pantelides called it a “colossal failure of the state” where a businessman undermined the government for 15 years undisturbed, violating all laws.

Meanwhile, Disy MP Rita Superman said the slew of reactions now came too late and called on the attorney-general along with the state to take the necessary actions.

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