Earlier this month, the Executive Director of KISA – Action for Equality, Support, Anti-racism, a member of the JUSTICIA network coordinated by Fair Trials, was arrested for allegedly “obstructing police work” and “attempting to escape lawful arrest,” after offering assistance to a young man, a foreign national, who was being questioned aggressively by the police outside of KISA’s offices in Nicosia, Cyprus. This is the sixth arrest of KISA’s Executive Director over the past two decades, and it is part of a broader crackdown on NGOs assisting refugees and migrants in the context of rule of law backsliding and shrinking space for civil society in the European Union.
“KISA is of the view that this case, the sixth, is part of the criminalisation [process] and [an] attempt to intimidate and retaliate against it for its work in supporting migrant women and protecting human rights,” reads KISA’s statement on the arrest.
After being interrogated by the police, KISA’s Executive Director was accused of “obstructing police work,” an offense which carries a maximum fine of 150 pounds or jail time of one month, or both, and of “attempting to escape lawful arrest and custody,” which carries a prison sentence of up to five years.
Other charges brought against the Director since 2002 have included: illegal fundraising (for an urgent surgery of a migrant domestic worker); the use of megaphones without a licence during a solidarity event; trespassing (to investigate the death of a migrant man at the hands of the police); and rioting during the 13th Rainbow Festival, which was attacked by extreme-right groups. In five out of six cases, charges brought against him were either dropped by the Attorney General or led to acquittal.
In the last case, however, the Director of KISA was fined for “disturbing the peace” when he visited a police station in Nicosia and attempted to urge the police to take action to protect a migrant woman who had been a victim of violence and harassment.
Following the latest arrest of the Executive Director, the police officer also threatened to arrest all other KISA staff, if they published photographs or other material from the scene of the incident. The officer in question had been on KISA’s radar for a while, having received numerous complaints from non-nationals regarding his violent and disrespectful behaviour in breach of their human rights, including fair trial rights. KISA has filed a complaint with the local police watchdog to investigate the conduct of officer in question, but also asked for a broader examination into police abuses.
According to KISA’s press release, the Cypriot government is stifling the work of civil society groups by depriving them of resources and funding. Although the Cypriot police did not issue a press release about the latest arrest of KISA’s Executive Director, local media coverage portrayed his actions and the work of KISA in a negative, defamatory light. Both risk further shrinking civil society space in Cyprus, which could have long-term consequences for the rule of law, freedom of association and fundamental rights in the country.
The number of individuals criminalised for humanitarian activities in the EU has grown tenfold in the past three years, contributing to a general climate of mistrust and suspicion towards civil society. Such prosecutions are often politically motivated so as to defame individuals or civil society actors, to deter solidarity and create a hostile environment for migrants.
Last June, Members of European Parliament in the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee highlighted in a non-legislative resolution that EU laws are having “unintended consequences” for EU citizens, because they fail to properly distinguish between human smuggling and humanitarian work. They called on EU member states to include an exemption in their national laws for individuals and civil society organisations who assist migrants for humanitarian reasons and to ensure that they are not prosecuted for doing so.
In July 2019, several members of our JUSTICIA network signed a joint statement together with other European and national human rights organisations on the growing number of cases of criminal investigation and prosecution against individuals who provide humanitarian assistance, which Member States are unwilling or unable to provide, despite being obliged to do so according to international and EU law.