Editorial: Tribal mentality undermines the rule of law

Cyprus Mail

POLITICIANS often boast that in Cyprus we have the rule of law. Generally speaking, this is not an idle claim, even though things are far from perfect when it comes to law enforcement and the small matter of equality before the law. In these respects, which are integrally linked to any notion of rule of law, Cyprus, it would appear, still has a long way to go before we can safely make any such boast.

Many foreigners, for instance, would have little faith in the rule of law after the experiences they have had dealing with the authorities, which in most disputes blatantly side with locals irrespective of who is in the right. It is particularly so in small towns or villages where the members of the local community know each other and stick together against the outsiders. Policemen are not unknown to protect members of the local community even when they are in the wrong.

The trials and tribulations of a Briton, who was reportedly beaten up in Paralimni last Monday by two developers he has been in dispute with, was a case in point. He was in hospital for three days after suffering head injuries and external bruising, and when his lawyer called up the Paralimni police, he was told that they were “investigating an accident”. The two suspects were subsequently remanded in custody for four days, but it remains to be seen whether they will be charged.

This was, allegedly, the second time the Briton had been the victim of assault by the same developers. The first case was never heard; the charges were dropped because the plaintiff had not shown up for the hearing. He had been told by the prosecutor not to bother coming from the UK, where he lives, for the hearing because it was likely to be adjourned. The judge did not grant the request for an adjournment and the case was closed, because the main witness was absent. Would he be wrong in suspecting that he had been tricked by the authorities?

Some 18 months ago, an enterprising Polish student set up a rickshaw service in Ayia Napa, which proved very popular with tourists. However, local cab drivers felt this was hurting their business and retaliated by threatening the young Pole, damaging some of his rickshaws and beating up a couple of the operators. Ayia Napa police offered the young entrepreneur next to no protection and eventually he was forced to close his business. Such incidents do not inspire foreigners’ confidence and trust in our law enforcement.

Perhaps it is asking too much of policemen to act impartially in small, tightly-knit communities in which they may be friends or relatives of local people. In nine out of 10 disputes involving foreigners, a policeman protects the member of his community even if he or she is in the wrong. And this tribal mentality prevails more often than not, even if a Cypriot from another town is in dispute with a member of the community.

In this climate, the foreign mother of the girl who had been sexually abused when she was four should not have been surprised to hear, 10 days ago, that the charges against the girl’s father had been withdrawn and the case closed, without ever being heard by Paphos court. Some legal mistakes made during a family court hearing related to the case would have made the job of the prosecution very difficult, the Attorney-general decided. Then again, the family court’s decision to grant access rights to a father (a Paphos man) facing charges of abusing his child defied belief.

A few months ago, a DISY deputy revealed that almost half of the 141 cases of family violence, including child abuse, pending before the courts were in Paphos, in which the tribal mentality remains very strong indeed. The legislature’s pleas for family violence cases to be given priority by the courts had been ignored, he said. Could the delays be linked in any way to local suspects being protected by the Paphos police and local authorities? Nobody can say, but at the same time could the possibility be ruled out, given the tribalism that marks our small communities and the charges of corruption made a few weeks ago against the Paphos police by the Minister of Justice?
The government, judiciary and the police command need to give serious thought to this problem and come up with ways of tackling it because it is giving the country a bad reputation. More and more foreigners, including many EU nationals, are settling in Cyprus, and the authorities have a legal obligation to ensure they are treated just like Cypriots. This is what the rule of law means.

(archive article – Sunday, January 20, 2008)
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