x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Police acquittal spawns protests

Three judges cleared 10 officers of all charges of brutality despite video footage that shows two men being beaten while in handcuffs.

Demonstrators protest against the acquittal of police in a brutality case in Nicosia.
Demonstrators protest against the acquittal of police in a brutality case in Nicosia.

NICOSIA // Marcos Papageorgiou had just finished a master's degree in London and flown home to his native Cyprus for the Christmas holidays. On his second evening back he was out with a friend when they got pulled over by plainclothes police for an identity check. What happened next was caught on amateur videotape and caused widespread shock when the grainy night-time footage was repeatedly broadcast on Cypriot television stations, circulated on mobile phones and posted on YouTube. The video shows at least six men stamping their feet on two men and repeatedly punching them as they lay handcuffed on the ground, offering no resistance. Cries of pain and distress are audible. The footage is reminiscent of the infamous video of Los Angeles police beating Rodney King, a black motorist. The acquittal by a jury of four LA police officers in 1992 sparked six days of rioting. The Cypriot public, too, regarded the evidence against their own police to be impregnable. But last week, four years after the incident, a court in Nicosia acquitted 10 police officers of all brutality charges. The three judges - there is no jury system in Cyprus - unanimously ruled that the video evidence "which originally led to the prosecution" was unconvincing and invalid. There was no rioting as in the King case. But the public uproar at what was regarded as a miscarriage of justice that put the police above the law was swift. Even as the verdict was being delivered, Cyprus's attorney general, Petros Clerides, burst into the court to protest against the rejection of the video evidence. The public no longer trusted the police, he told state radio later. The state legal service promptly announced it would appeal the decision in the Supreme Court. Loukas Louka, Cyprus's justice minister, said the government respected the court's decision, but insisted: "This is not the end of the matter." The law also needed to be amended on the admissibility of audio-visual evidence, he added.

A day after the acquittals, more than 200 family members and friends of the two students protested outside the Nicosia court. The bitter irony of what befell the two students, Marcos Papageorgiou and Yiannis Nicolaou, both 27, is keenly felt by their families. Cypriots sending their children to universities in Britain often fret about the crime rate there: violent crime is rare in Cyprus. "My son had been in London for 10 years, going out in the evenings with no trouble," said Marcos's father, Yiannis Papageorgiou, 70, a gynaecologist and obstetrician. "He told me 'I come to my country and they beat me almost to death after just two days here'." Dr Papageorgiou met friends on Saturday to discuss the "unacceptable" situation. They decided to form a protest group called Alert with a committee of five, although Dr Papageorgiou deliberately is not one. "It's not just for justice for the two students, it's for everyone," he said in an interview. "Imagine if the police can get away with this when so much evidence exists, then what should a defenceless immigrant expect?" Alert garnered abundant local television coverage on Monday with a theatrical but peaceful protest. Under a heavy spring downpour, 150 people placed bananas at the main entrance to the Nicosia courts. Blocking the entrance were 20 police officers. The protest was inspired by the words hurled at the criminal court judges by Dr Papageorgiou when the 10 police officers walked free. "This is a banana republic; rejoice in your justice system."

The protesters included students, university professors, artists, teachers, businessmen and housewives. "I'm here because I have teenage children and I worry about them if they're ever approached by the police who should be there to protect and support them," said Dora Georgalli, 48, who runs a kindergarten. There were several reasons why the incident has provoked outrage, said Nicos Peristianis, a sociologist and the director of the University of Nicosia. The middle class was stirred because the students were from good families, he said. "One is the son of a very well-known doctor who's delivered thousands of babies, including one of my own." Yiannis Nicolaou, one of the beaten students, is back in Cyprus. The other is still in London, working as a freelance artist. He is so devastated by the court's ruling that he is unsure whether he will ever return to Cyprus, his father, Dr Papageorgiou, said. "Marcos doesn't feel secure enough yet to come back."

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae