(Updates with background in fourth paragraph and comment in seventh paragraph)
By Stelios Orphanides
As the attorney-general awaits the cabinet’s appointment of an investigator to probe the case of a senior counsel’s exposed ties to Russia, new leaked emails have cast more light on the links, and a new shadow over Nicosia’s ties to Moscow.
“The council of ministers which convenes tomorrow will appoint an investigator to look into the matter,” the Press and Information Office said in an emailed statement on Tuesday, a day after Clerides announced his intention to order the probe, in addition to a data-theft investigation. The presidency’s statement did not reveal additional details about the composition and mandate of the investigator.
In the leaked emails, attorney Eleni Loizidou, who until Monday headed the extradition department at the Law Office, appears to have helped Russia with advice, on how to have fugitives extradited even in cases where they had applied for political asylum. In addition to appearing to have offered favours to Russia, Loizidou, who used a private email account for the communications, also appears to have requested personal favours, in one case jokingly.
On Tuesday, Politis reported that in October 2015, Yulia Samarskaya, first secretary of the Russian embassy in Nicosia, thanked the attorney-general for the “high-level assistance extended by the Law Office to Russian authorities”. The Russian diplomat referred to a meeting in which Russian ambassador Stanislav Osadchiy intended to personally express his gratitude” to Lozidou, one of the letter’s co-recipients.
Loizidou appeared to be one of many at the Law Office to serve Russian interests and had the approval of the attorney-general, said the newspaper, adding that Clerides’s relation to Loizidou greatly improved after Russian prosecutor general Yuri Chaika visited Cyprus last year.
Osadchiy too has repeatedly sparked controversy with comments and actions. Last month, he criticised the government’s decision to freeze cooperation with Russia in a probe against Hermitage Capital founder Bill Browder after the latter resorted to a court requesting an emergency injunction to stop Cyprus passing information about him to Russian authorities. In late 2016, the head of Russia’s diplomatic representation in Cyprus, attended a seminar organised by politicians favouring a hard line in reunification talks.
Government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides said the he had no comment other than the presidency’s latest statement on the appointment of an investigator.
“Today, it is a day for reflection, as was yesterday also,” said Nicosia-based lawyer Charalampos Prountzos in an interview with state-radio CyBC on Tuesday.
The affair which broke on Sunday, after Politis reported on Loizidou’s leaked emails, “may harm relations to Russia,” he added.
A colleague of his, the Limassol-based lawyer Soteris Flourentzos added that the revelations may also harm Cyprus’s ties to other countries.
“This affair now does not only affect Cyprus’s ties to Russia but also those with other countries interested in how Cyprus handles cases of individuals extradited to Russia,” Flourentzos said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “The Loizidou case is quite sad judging from what I have read, namely emails drafted in not a strictly professional manner sent by a country’s official to another country’s official”.
Flourentzos added that he was also concerned to see a senior official engage in correspondence with another country’s official using a personal email account.
“As a country we have certain declared enemies and we should therefore be twice as cautious as is warranted” when it comes to following procedures in communication to protect against data theft, he said. “It appears that there are no standard rules applied about the use of official email accounts and the responsibility does not exclusively lay with the Law Office”.
Currently, there rages a “world war” in which cyber-attacks and financial and economic sanctions are employed to destabilise countries instead of traditional weapons, lawyer Prountzos added. In this context, he named last year’s presidential elections in the US, which catapulted Donald Trump to power. US authorities are currently investigating alleged Russian meddling in the US elections which appears to have employed social media adds, email hacking and the employment of agents and lobbyists.
Russia also came under fire for its backing of the Leave campaign last year in the Brexit referendum in the UK and as recently to Catalan secessionists.
Flourentzos said that in his view, attorney-general Clerides’s actions after the affair broke out had been correct and that Loizidou should not be suspended from service.
“As the case is now about to be investigated, and all parties will be awaiting the outcome, anything else could constitute an interference in the investigation,” he said. “Suspension from service is not a punitive measure but only to be taken where there might be interference with witnesses or evidence. Her transfer to other duties it is, in my opinion, a sufficient and adequate measure as she is not in position to affect the investigation or witnesses”.
“Should the investigator appointed by the cabinet determine that there are criminal offences then either the police will have to conduct a criminal probe, or a criminal investigator will have to be appointed to do this,” Flourentzos added. “As Loizidou is a senior attorney, I think the second option is the most likely and appropriate”.