My name is Sarah Fenwick and I am a Cypriot citizen.
On January 3rd, 2018, at around 10:30am, I was driving on the road behind the House of Representatives when I was stopped by Mr. A. Charilaos, a motorcycle traffic officer. Mr. Charilaos pulled me over and told me I had two outstanding warrants against me. I was shocked! When I asked what they were for, as I didn’t know about them, he said he didn’t have any information and ordered me to follow him to the Lycavitos Police Station, along with another woman in a different car who had also been pulled over.
Needless to say, this was intimidating and confusing, as I had just come back from taking my mother for her cancer treatment and was trying to finish some other work before taking her once again in the early afternoon. The police officer disrupted my entire schedule and I can’t imagine how the young mother of a baby – who was the other woman dragged in off the street in front of me – felt about it. We were being treated like criminals, doing the ‘drive of shame’ behind the police officer who kept putting his siren on. We had no idea what would happen once we got to the police station.
Once we arrived, I was shocked to see many other people there, all of whom had been brought in ‘off the street’. They were similarly confused and stunned as I and the young mother, whose baby was crying loudly. I asked the young female police officer what was going on. She told me that I had two warrants against me and showed me two court decisions from Limassol, one for a traffic violation (parking) and another fine. OK, I said, why didn’t you just call me or send a warning by mail, these are civil cases? She claimed they didn’t have my address, which was a clear inaccuracy, because I had paid a parking fine three months earlier in exactly the same station and gave my new address in Nicosia.
One of the fines was from the social insurance department, and I explained that I had talked to them about our family situation of having a cancer patient with a rare and difficult case of cancer. That I had started paying back the money owed during the time I couldn’t work regularly because I was helping my mother to get the treatments she needed. That I didn’t have the time to defend myself during the court case because I was too busy helping my mother.
The police woman told me that the Limassol court had in any case gone ahead and fined me 150 Euros in a civil action. So I paid it to her and got a receipt. I then kept asking the officer why they had gone to such lengths to treat me like a criminal and interfere with my right to liberty and security of person as per Article 11 of the Cyprus Constitution. That citizens are not animals, and should not be humiliated for the purpose of collecting money. That the officer could have told me what the fines were for and collected the money on the spot with a receipt in return.
I was disappointed and hurt that my country’s authorities were behaving in a way that abuses their power and authority. At one point Officer Charilaos addressed the room loudly saying ‘you are all in the wrong, you know it and you’re just playing dumb’, without the slightest knowledge of the background to my case. My mother’s cancer is rare and she is even a test case for how to treat it in Cyprus and internationally. I participated in every step of her treatment with the doctors. This took an enormous amount of time and was extremely stressful. So instead of the police being helpful and understanding of citizens’ problems, now I feel am being punished for helping my mother, both by the courts and the police. You can read just one of the articles I wrote about the situation here: https://www.cyprusnewsreport.com/2017/10/cancer-expensive-disease-emotionally-financially/
The officers had no answers for my questions although I could tell that most of them in the room had started to feel embarrassed about and overwhelmed by the crying baby and confused people milling around the room. They then passed me to their superior. I spoke further with Mr. Georgiou, who was the superior in charge at the time. He insisted that he was just following procedures and did not tell me who had given the order to pull people off the street. I asked about proportionality and judgement, about the seriousness of a small fine in comparison with real crimes going on every day.
I have received and paid many parking fines like everyone else here, and dislike the fact that parking facilities are limited, making it difficult to find legal parking and easy to get fines. But that is nothing compared to what happened today. Today I felt that my country had become a police state in which power over citizens is abused. In which the social insurance scheme is in fact the social liability scheme. In which the protection offered by the police is an illusion and any one of us can be vulnerable to intimidation.
When our liberties and human rights are infringed upon even in the smallest way, democracy becomes a mockery.
With this letter I hope that the procedure for collecting these fines can be re-evaluated and that citizens can be treated with more respect for their time and right to liberty. The police knew exactly where I was driving and used the monitoring system to pull me over. While this is a useful technology to capture criminals who threaten the public’s safety, this does not give them the right to abuse their power when it comes to low-priority things like civil fines. The recipients of minor fines can be warned and told to go in and settle it at their earliest convenience, not humiliated in the way that me and other people were today. In the case that the traffic officer does not know what the warrants are for, his superior should inform him or he should call into the station to doublecheck. Other ways should be found for the police to collect money, ways that are modern, transparent and logical. Try SMS and mobile phone payments. It is 2018 after all.
Copies of this letter will be published and sent to the Attorney General, and the Minister of Justice. Click here to sign the petition I started against an abusive system that ignores any humanitarian factors and is designed only to collect cash.
When I paid an earlier parking fine, the Lykavitos police told me they never act on the thousands of fine warrants because the whole of Cyprus would be in jail.So, why start now? At the same time the incident happened, the House of Representatives was voting on the police anti-corruption bill. In addition, according to an article from December in the Cyprus Mail, the police said they did not want to collect this money because it is not part of their main job of defending public safety.
Was the entire operation politically motivated in a type of protest against the anti-corruption bill, or motivated by resentment against the fact that it is left to the police to collect court fines?
When the policewoman showed me my file, it was noted that I am a journalist. This gives me the impression that I was deliberately targeted as someone who would write about her experience of being semi-arrested. Someone who could be used to send a political message during the pre-election period.
Cyprus is the only EU country in which the police chase thousands of petty fines…it is not practical or sustainable. In my opinion the process is against our right to privacy, liberty and security of person. It is unfair and open to abuse. Time for a change for the better.
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