JUST before 6.00am on July 11 last year, 98 containers holding munitions at Evangelos Florakis naval base in Mari exploded. Thirteen fire fighters and sailors were killed and 60 others were injured.
A sonic boom from the explosion hit and severely damaged the nearby Vassilikos power plant, which generated over half of the island’s electricity. In the immediate vicinity the ground shook and the blast caused extensive damage to buildings as roofs collapsed and windows broke.
It soon emerged that the munitions, confiscated under a UN Security Council resolution from a ship sailing from Iran to Syria in 2009, had been improperly stored and left dangerously exposed to the sweltering Cyprus heat for more than two years.
Within hours of the explosion, Defence Minister Costas Papacostas and national guard chief Petros Tsalikidis resigned, swiftly followed by Foreign Minister Marcos Kyprianou.
Mass protests followed as the public demanded that those responsible for one of Cyprus’ worst tragedies since the 1974 invasion be brought to justice. One year on, they are still waiting.
AT CYPRUS Larnaca Fire Station 1 a marble plaque names the six fire fighters killed almost a year ago at the naval base explosion near Mari.
Among those named is Panayiotis Theofilou, whose family is suing the state for over €2 million in damages. Families of some of the other 12 victims have also gone to the courts in their search for justice. These private cases come on top of a plethora of public inquiries and a state prosecution which all, to varying degrees, seek to apportion responsibility for the tragedy.
The state prosecution ordered by Attorney-general Petros Clerides has indicted former ministers, army chiefs and civil servants for their role in the blast, while a public inquiry into political responsibility led by lawyer Polys Polyviou pointed the finger directly at President Demetris Christofias. Meanwhile parliament launched two investigations of its own and called for Christofias’ resignation. And when Clerides announced he was not going to indict Christofias, some families, including Theofilou’s, went directly to the Supreme Court to try to lift his immunity.
At the centre of these cases and inquiries was the government decision to store the 98 containers holding munitions at Evangelos Florakis naval base at Mari for more than two years.
The containers had lain out in the open since early 2009 when Cyprus – obliged by a UN Security Council resolution – was forced to confiscate a cargo from a ship sailing from Iran to Syria as it entered Cypriot waters.
The deadly munitions had been left at the base where they were first placed after the ship was unloaded. The defence ministry decided against building a protective shed to avoid spending money on materials that might be sold. Even the labels cautioning against exposure to the sun were removed. Concerns about the safety of the explosives were raised periodically but were not acted on.
Within hours of the explosion, Defence Minister Costas Papacostas and national guard chief Petros Tsalikidis resigned. Foreign Minister Marcos Kyprianou quickly followed suit.
The cabinet appointed lawyer Polys Polyviou to lead a public investigation into political responsibility behind the blast. He held public hearings in September and by October published his report.
But when Polyviou concluded that Christofias and his then ministers of defence and foreign affairs were responsible for the blast, the government rejected his findings as unsubstantiated.
In November, all opposition parties passed a (non-binding) resolution in Parliament demanding Christofias’ resignation.
“The saddest realisation for me was the difficulty we have as a society to engage in a productive dialogue and so learn from our mistakes rather than hurl abuse at each other,” said this week social anthropologist Yiannis Papadakis, an associate professor at the University of Cyprus.
“The political parties, for example, focused on the blame the Polyviou report placed on the president and ignored the heavy accusations of rife patronage in which they are all implicated,” Papadakis said.
During the inquiry Polyviou had asked politicians and state officials to explain exactly what they did and did not do, and why. In each and every case respondents insisted they bore no responsibility.
Some said that their “opinion was not asked for” (for example Kyprianou and ex national guard deputy commander Savvas Argyrou).
The defence ministry’s permanent secretary up until late 2010 said he would have “got both the ministry and [himself] in trouble by taking non-politically approved action”.
Christofias said he was clueless: “I had told my cabinet… the president felt like a cheated husband who was the last to know.”
For Cyprus, it was an extraordinary sight. Day after day, top officials and politicians ran the gauntlet of grieving relatives and TV cameras as they were questioned in public on actions they had taken, and, far more crucially, those they had failed to take.
On a table just two metres away from them, stood framed photographs of some of the men killed in the explosion, a poignant reminder of ultimate price of state incompetence.
Christofias’ refusal to accept Polyviou’s conclusion that, as president, he bore the ultimate responsibility was widely criticised.
“I feel that the reaction of President Christofias not to accept the responsibility that the Polyviou report placed on him delegitimised him in the eyes of a large section of the population, but more importantly it delegitimised any notion of justice in Cyprus,” Papadakis said.
“Why should anyone accept the verdict of any institution of the judiciary which is supposed to be a system independent of the government, if the president himself chose to ignore the independent committee he appointed?”
Polyviou’s report was non-binding and his investigation was not a criminal one. In a criminal case, the court has much stricter criteria to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Even so, Polyviou did go beyond the task assigned and said that manslaughter charges were justified against anyone who knew of the cargo’s danger and did not take sufficient measures to neutralise it.
The police handed over their criminal investigation to Clerides in October and in January he announced he would indict two former ministers (Kyprianou and Papacostas) and six (later dropped to four) army and fire service officers. They have been charged with causing the deaths of the 13 men by want of precaution and of homicide by gross negligence. Clerides said there were no legal grounds to indict Christofias, regardless of his immunity.
The Supreme Court recently threw out three applications aiming to eventually lift Christofias’ immunity as “unfounded”. But the lawyers of some of the relatives said they would use Polyviou’s report to prosecute Christofias when his term expires next year and he is no longer protected with immunity.
The lawyers said there was a legal dispute between them and the attorney-general over the interpretation of an article of the Constitution stating that the president cannot be prosecuted except for high reason or committing an offence involving dishonesty and moral turpitude, which the lawyers said includes manslaughter.
The court said the issue of interpretation could only arise if and when the attorney-general decided to prosecute the president, a move Clerides has rejected.
Loucas Loucaides, the lawyer for the family of Michalis Heracleous, another Mari victim, said he was taking the government to the European Court of Human Rights for failing to indict all those responsible for Mari.
Families have also sued the state for over €2 million in damages. The family of captain Andreas Ioannides, the navy commander who died in the blast, names Christofias and former ministers Papacostas and Kyprianou. The lawyers argue that Christofias’ actions or inactions in relation to Mari were not done in his official capacity: he was acting in his personal capacity, the argument goes.
Meanwhile, the state’s criminal case against Kyprianou, Papacostas et al has been subject to numerous delays and postponements.
The status of another of the accused, former national guard chief and Greek national Petros Tsalikidis has also been a cause of delays. Attempts to arrest him from Greece to stand trial here were dropped. Instead, he has been charged in Greece where he will stand trial.
For the relatives and the public at large, justice has not yet been served, and all indications are that such an outcome is a long way off, if it comes at all.
But for Papadakis, the fact that a trial is taking place at all is a significant development.
“This was the first time that ministers and high officials have been taken to court and from now on, officials should have realised, they are not immune from prosecution,” he said.