John Hooper in Nicosia
- The Guardian, Wednesday 6 February 2013 18.37 GMT
It was like a scene from a film, said Arif Mohamed. He was sitting in a Jeep hemmed in by police officers on either side. They planned to whisk him to the airport for immediate deportation to his native Sri Lanka.
By chance, his lawyer spotted him in the Nicosia traffic and hammered on the vehicle, demanding that the police stop what they were doing.
A Tamil who had been an army intelligence operative during the civil war, Mohamed would be at risk from both sides in his still bitterly divided country if he was deported. But Mohamed was out of luck, and the police got him to the airport.
On the plane, after his handcuffs were removed, Mohamed said, he started to shout and throw things around. «The police tried to shut my mouth and one guy grabbed my hand and broke my wrist. I was saying to myself: ‘I will die, but at least I will die in front of witnesses.'»
In the event, the pilot refused to take him and Mohamed was bundled off the plane. Similar dramas have taken place in other countries after asylum seekers have had their applications rejected. But what made Mohamed’s case remarkable was that it was still pending before theCyprus supreme court.
The deportation of asylum seekers whose cases are unresolved is one of several complaints made by Amnesty International in a report on Cyprus’s treatment of irregular immigrants published last year. The organisation also accused the Greek Cypriot authorities of using detention unnecessarily and of keeping detainees in substandard conditions. The main centre is block 10 of Nicosia’s central prison, which Amnesty described as dark and unhealthy.
Elsewhere, asylum seekers are kept in police stations that were never designed for long-term detention. The organisation said some had been held for more than three years.
Andreas Ashiotis, the permanent secretary at the ministry of the interior, called Amnesty’s position «extreme and unjustified». He said a new detention centre was being prepared. Asylum seekers were only detained once their case had been rejected.
«It is common practice that the minister decides after two months whether to release them. Then we re-examine the case after six months,» he said.
But he did not deny that some, who had appealed to the supreme court, were deported before their cases were heard. «Only if they can get a provisional order forbidding the deportation does [the asylum seeker] have the right to remain in Cyprus,» Ashiotis said.
Mohamed’s lawyer, Michalis Paraskevas, said that violated a 2005 EU directive giving asylum seekers the right to be heard by a court. On Cyprus, cases are examined by the asylum service and, if an appeal is made, by an independent reviewing authority. Ashiotis said the latter was composed of lawyers and was thus a quasi-judicial body.
Paraskevas said that, even when cases did go to the supreme court, the judges’ decisions were sometimes ignored. «On 18 January 2011, I won a case in the supreme court and the judge ordered the immediate release of my client. They did not release him. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it.»
He went to the judge in chambers who said there was nothing he could do. Paraskevas then wrote to the ministry of the interior, informed the press and finally, the following March, staged a demonstration, all to no avail. It was only after a radio journalist invited him to talk about the case that his client was released, four months after the original court order.
Ashiotis said: «I am surprised Mr Paraskevas is taking this position that we are not obeying supreme court decisions … in every case we implement the decisions.»