Mari Blast Inquiry: President's Historic Testimony
A grim-faced President Demetris Christofias arrived at the finance ministry in Nicosia to testify to the one-member committee investigating the political responsibilities for the deadly explosion at Evangelos Florakis naval base on July 11th.
In the first presidential testimony to a hearing in Cyprus' history, Christofias entered the building surrounded by his security guards and holding a 10-page statement. The president gave his statement in a closed session attended by relatives of the 13 men who died in the explosion, and questions followed from Polys Polyviou, who heads the investigation.
According to his testimony - which held no surprises - those to blame for the tragedy were his subordinates in the foreign ministry and ministry of defence, and he was not responsible for the events leading up to the explosion. He said that he was unaware of disagreements between former Defence Minister Costas Papacostas and Foreign Minister Markos Kyprianou over what to do with the containers which blew up in July. Polyviou pointed out that it was the president who chose those ministers, to which Christofias replied in the affirmative, saying that he had a 'relative responsibility' for this.
The blast was caused when explosives that were seized from Iran en route to Syria in 2009 detonated at the naval base. The president justified his subsequent contacts with Iran and Syria during which he assured them the weapons would not leave Cyprus except to be returned to these countries, saying that it was necessary to protect the island's national interests. The weapons would not have been returned, he said.
The president pleaded ignorance on the question of whether he knew the explosives in the containers were becoming dangerously unstable. But according to recently revealed documents, the president was fully aware of the dangerous contents of 98 containers seized from Iran on their way to Syria.
In September 2010, 10 months before the explosives in the 98 containers blew up the president met with Defence Ministry officials Colonel Andreas Stavrou and Lietenant Andreas Yennari. During their talks, the officials discussed the destruction of the explosives in the cargo that was confiscated from the Monchegorsk ship in 2009. The Ministry of Defence officials urged its destruction because 85 of the containers had explosives in them that were reacting to high temperatures.
In an astonishing reaction, Palace diplomat Leonidas Pantelides coordinated with the very countries responsible for the illegal arms dealing in the first place - Iran and Syria. He contacted the Iranian and Syrian embassies to get their approval for destroying the explosives because they were becoming unstable.
The documents show that the president took no action between September 2010 and July 2011 to handle the obviously dangerous situation at Evangelos Florakis naval base.
In reaction to the president's plea of ignorance at the hearing, DIKO MP Nikolas Papadopoulos said he was not satisified with his testimony so far, in comments to SigmaTV.
Testimony made public
The president arrived 20 minutes late for the hearing, and during the delay, Polyviou made a statement to the media and relatives of the victims that his investigation and the president's statement would be made public.
"The people are the judge and I am the judged," he said, assuring the public and media that there would be no cover ups.
"I feel the need to once again express my deep grief and sorrow for the catastrophic explosion in Mari which caused loss of lives. This whole time, my thoughts have been with the victims' relatives and I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere condolences and sympathies from the bottom of my heart.
We believe that investigating the incident is very important. Our only goal is to shine the light of truth in a fair and organised manner, based on the Constitution's laws and regulations, as befits a democratic state. The truth is imperative because all this time, some have set up courts in town squares, to judge and condemn on the basis of emotions and other considerations.
In all my life and my long political career, I worked to ensure that there would be no suspicion of liability to fall on me. In all my life and in my way I served and serve the people, democracy and our country. This was my only obsession, to humbly and selflessly serve the common man and the interests of Cyprus and our people.
In reference to the tragic incident. The whole thing is divided into two major sections: the first major section is the political decision to handle the cargo, based on Security Council resolutions, the international obligations of the Republic and the national interest. The second section is how the cargo was handled by those who had the competence and knowledge to do so.
As President of the Republic, I had the duty towards the political handling of the whole issue. I will go into a brief history to throw the light of truth on the matter.
A ship arrived in Cyprus.
The Republic of Cyprus was informed by the US that Cyprus-flagged ship (Monchegorsk) was heading through the Suez Canal and might be carrying military supplies from Iran in violation of UN Security Council sanctions. As a Cyprus-flagged ship, it had to be controlled by the Republic of Cyprus based on Security Council resolutions and international law. After checking, the Cyprus Republic took action based on Security Council resolutions.
The question was very complex and sensitive from the beginning. From the first moments, we received representations and pressures from countries that play a key role on the international scene, with a reminder that - especially the Cyprus Republic - should be sensitive to the implementation of Security Council resolutions. This is documented by a series of memos that have already been submitted to the Commission. Therefore, the ship was asked to dock at Limassol port for inspection.
It should be pointed out clearly that the implementation of Security Council resolutions on Cyprus was and is crucial for our struggle against the occupation and for the reunification of our country and our people. As a victim of occupation, the Republic of Cyprus could not itself violate Security Council resolutions. The whole operation was interwoven with our national interest.
At the same time, Syria strongly reacted against it. They asked us to let the ship dock in Syria, threatening that the relations between the Republic and Syria and the Arab world would suffer.
The handling of the cargo ship.
The whole handling of the cargo ship was in full cooperation with the competent Sanctions Committee of the Security Council.
Our desire was to find a way not to keep the cargo in Cyprus. As part of our effort, we informed the Sanctions Committee, stating our position that the Cyprus Republic would not be able to keep and store the cargo, as an argument in our efforts to convince them of the need for the Security Council's direct involvement. Also, as evidenced by the data submitted to the Commission, we investigated the possibility for the load to be transfered somewhere else, such as the premises of UNIFIL or Malta, by a Security Council decision. There were no proposals from the Security Council or any other country to move the cargo anywhere but to Cyprus.
We recommended the acceptance of the cargo under a 'blue flag' ie, the flag of the United Nations, and then that the Security Council should handle the load. This position is supported with the record of telephone communication from the Director of the Diplomatic Office with the British High Commissioner who spoke with the Ambassadors of France, Germany and the United States on February 2, 2009, in which our handling was described as skillful. Also documented by references of contacts by the Permanent Representative of Cyprus to the United Nations.
In one of those references, our Permanent Representative set out our position as "Cyprus will work with each country concerned to assist Cyprus to seek a solution on the ship's cargo, provided that the Security Council has previously decided collectively to support Cyprus in any bilateral action". Unfortunately our position for receiving the cargo ship with a blue flag, ie the United Nations, was not adopted, possibly due to conflicting and different views within the Security Council.
Where there was convergence in the views of the permanent Security Council members as evidenced by a series of reports and memos that have been submitted to the Commission, is that the cargo should remain in Cyprus as an option for the correct implementation of these resolutions.
At the same time, negative responses continued mainly from Syria and Iran in relation to the possible keeping of the cargo.
There was constant communication by the Republic, as it should be, with the Sanctions Committee, which was briefed on the results from the screening of the cargo by competent technocrats and generally about our movements. The Commission ruled that there was a violation of the resolutions and the implementation of decisions lay on the Cyprus Republic.
I acted only in accordance with the national interest. I took into account the sensitivities of the Cyprus Republic for the implementation of Security Council resolutions. Noted the positions of Security Council and our partners in the European Union. Despite strong opposition from Syria and Iran, decided to seize and store the cargo in Cyprus.
This was a correct policy decision. Based on international and political circumstances that we had, it was basically our only option.
Another parameter was very important to us before making a decision. Cargo safety. You know that at the meeting of February 6th, 2009 at the Presidential Palace, in the presence of many authorities, I raised the issue of complete control of the cargo before it landed in Cyprus, the issues of risk and safe storage. The answer we received was that if it was in the national interest to confiscate the cargo, the relevant authorities could property handle the cargo.
I also recall that during the period under consideration, political leaders who had received information on our operations, supported our operations with public statements. Nobody disagreed, either publically or otherwise, with the decision to seize and store the cargo. Nobody changed until the catastrophic explosion in Mari on July 11th.
The management of the Cyprus Republic was welcomed by the international community. In a discussion that took place on March 10, 2009 at the Security Council, the Permanent Representative of France said "there is hope that the Cyprus Government is fully aware of its obligations and that it recognised that this burden can not be allowed to reach its destination or returned to Iran. It took the only decision it could, namely, to keep the cargo on its territory. Everyone must act in the same way." The Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom in the same sessions aid that "The united Kingdom is grateful for the vigilance and cooperation shown by the Cyprus Republic to prevent weapons materiel tranferred from Itran in violation of the embargo." On April 28th, 2009, a written statement by British Foreign Minister in the House of COmmons noted that "With the retention of the cargo in secure facilities, Cyprus has handled the situation effectively in accordance with the requirements of the United Nations and the European Union." Such positive references were made later for example in the report of the Sanctions Committee to the Security Council on June 15, 2009.
If you compare this image with the image some people tried to impart to the Cypriot people that we supposedly detained the shipment because of "obsession" and only for the sake of Iran and Syria, it shows a complete distortion of reality.
Iran, Syria and meeting with Assad
The changing attitude of the Cypriot Republic, which traditionally supported the resolution against the occupation of the Golan Heights in the previous government in 2007, angered Syria because this move was interpreted as an unfriendly attitude change of Cyprus to Syria. There was also a friendly approach by Turkey to Syria to strengthen both political and economic relations. Syria accepted powerful Turkish pressure to change its stance on the Cyprus issue especially within the Islamic Council, the Secretary of which is a Turkish diplomat. I also recall the ferry link between the occupied area and Syria created much turmoil over the risk of upgrading the pseudo-state.
It should be noted that the seizure of the cargo was a blow to our relations with both Iran and Syria.
The Director of the Diplomatic Office has on file a number of notices of meetings with the ambassadors of Iran and Syria and notes from our embassies in the Arab world to reflect this reality. Even some in the Arab world attributed our handling of the cargo to pressure from the US or our strategic cooperation with Israel.
I make this introduction for you to understand the diplomatic maneovering we had to do for reasons of national interest during a meeting with President Assad of Syria in August 2009. In the same meeting we clarified that Cyprus cannot violate Security Council resolutions.
There was not policy of retaining the cargo until handing it over to Syria or Iran. On December 16, 2009, ie after the meeting with the Syrian President, the Director of the Diplomatic Office explaned to the Syrian Ambassador that only a decision from the Security Council could cause the Republic of Cyprus to decide to return the cargo. In a new appointment between the Director of Diplomatic Office with the Ambassador of Iran on May 28th, 2010, the Ambassador of Iran reported that he concludes from previous contacts that the cargo cannot be returned and therefore suggested that Cyprus buy the cargo from Syria.
The fact that Syria and Iran gradually understood that the cargo could not be returned to one of these countries is also evidenced by the fact that both during the visit of the Syrian President in the autumn of last year, and during my meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly with the leader of Iran, the issue was not discussed. This was perhaps the reason they agreed to destroy the gunpowder.
In accordance with the recommendation of the Director of the Diplomatic Office, I explored the potential destruction of the gunpowder, mainly for political reasons, based on the total information we had at that time.
Storage and management of cargo
The second part as I already mentioned, is the issue of storing and managing the cargo. This responsibility was reasonable and normal for those who had the knowledge and experience to handle such an issue. That is the National Guard. It's clear in my understanding that the whole incident is a system failure. Failed operations and systemic process that were built through the decades on considerations beyond the principles of meritocracy and good governance. These weaknesses create phenomenal negligence, procrastination and irresponsibility. It is not my intention to nullify the contribution of the public service but to point out weaknesses. For the first time the presidency has made efforts to correct this, but these efforts are not easy and encounter significant resistance from ingrained culture.
As to the meeting of February 7, 20111, in which the possible destruction of the consignment was discussed, I did not receive any information. For the official meeting on July 5th, a week before the explosion, when the greatest danger was found, I also did not receive any information. Unfortunately, it is obvious from these facts that the authorities made the wrong analysis in relation to the danger of the cargo. The authorities underestimated the danger.
With a real pain in my soul, I presented this before the Cabinet just hours after the deadly explosion as shown in the minutes of the Cabinet, expressing anger and frustration at the fact that the President was not aware.
As I was not aware of the request of the competent Sanctions Committee to send a delegation to control the cargo.
In retrospect, of course, one can make easy judgements, as some have done. But if I had been aware of the risk from those responsible for the storage of the cargo, especially after the incident of July 4th when they found the problem, I assure you I would have taken all necessary measures.
All this time as President of the Republic I have endured unacceptable behaviour which affects above all the institutions and democracy in our country.
I'm thinking of the insults and jeering, especially the attempts by some to judge and condemn, either through television or in 'peoples' courts.'
I endured all this time with the certainty that my time would come to shine the light of truth from the relevant authorities. It is for this that even before the Commission called me, I was willing to appear before you to say what I know about the topic.
In closing, I must ask the people of Cyprus once again to unify and address the top challenges facing us. I remind that after a decision by the Council of Ministers in consultation with the Attorney-general, will be made public."