Cyprus police moved quickly to arrest a dozen suspects in the aftermath of an attack on a local media building in Nicosia, but questions remained over what law enforcement knew ahead of time and how prepared were riot police to face the assault.
Dozens of angry rioters wreaked havoc Sunday night in west Nicosia when they attacked the premises of DIAS Media Group, which houses the local Sigma TV station. The incident took place after thousands protested peacefully outside the Presidential Palace in the early evening against Safe Pass health measures and corruption.
But as the demonstration was winding down, reports said dozens of angry protesters who remained in the area left at the sight of a police water canon vehicle known as Ajax rolling down the street outside the Palace.
Local media said the mob factions then proceeded to walk towards Sigma, about half an hour walking distance.
According to Sigma staff, including DIAS watchman Demetris Skouros, there was information ahead of time that protesters might reach the building.
'They threw the first firecracker inside the shack and the whole thing caught fire. So I got inside and cut off the main panel... and they closed the door behind me and wouldn’t let me get out'
Police officials on Tuesday morning said all information collected prior to the incident had been evaluated through proper channels but declined to say what specific information might have been relayed to law enforcement or other officials ahead of the incident.
Skouros, who was the first employee to face the rioters, said on live television that staff took some protective measures after getting information that angry protesters would come through the area.
“We got here at 3pm and locked up everywhere in the entire Group,” Skouros said, adding that around 8pm when the assault took place, two officers on motorcycles came by to check if everything had been secure.
“They came and asked me if the place was secured. I said yes and they left. In the meantime, the mob was right at the roundabout and were coming towards us,” Skouros said.
The CEO of DIAS and Sigma, Chrysanthos Tsouroullis, confirmed the information on live television saying he was told by a reporter about the mob’s whereabouts.
“Crowds from Presidential are heading towards the Group and this information reached the Chief of Police,” Tsouroullis said.
As for the watchman, who was an eyewitness, he went on to say the rioters gained entrance by breaking heavy chains and also broke off pieces of concrete as the mob walked towards the permanent guard shack.
“They threw the first firecracker inside the shack and the whole thing caught fire. So I got inside and cut off the main electrical panel to prevent the situation from spreading, and they closed the door behind me and they wouldn’t let me get out,” Skouros said.
“Guys, I’m gonna die in here,” I told them.
“You fucking fascist, you’re Tsouroullis’ dude, die all of you and Tsouroullis, you’re fascists,” they replied according to the security guard.
At that time, Skouros grabbed the fire extinguisher and broke the glass. He said he jumped out the window and went inside the building to alert everyone in the upper floors to get down to the basement.
“They had rocks and bricks, you cannot imagine what they were holding as they were coming in, all of them had their faces covered,” he added.
Police fully investigating from the get-go
At least twelve suspects have been arrested with police saying identification of individuals took place with the public’s help after authorities published images from security camera footage showing “persons of interest” who were believed to have been at the scene of the attack.
Police deputy chief of operations Demetris Demetriou did not specify the charges for all those arrested but during a video message posted Monday on Twitter, the law enforcement official said detentions and remands in the case were necessary to assist in the investigation.
Demetriou went on to say that an enhanced investigative unit from CID Nicosia was put together from the start “to fully investigate the incident and prosecute those responsible.”
Doctor among detained suspects
Additional information from police suggested four detainees were suspected of incitement, with one of them also being accused of breaching the DIAS gate. One suspect was also described as a doctor who addrssed the crowd during the massive protest through a bullhorn.
Police officials said they did not expect more than 500 to maximum 1000 protesters at the Presidential Palace on Sunday, with reports giving a final head count of about 5000.
It was also understood that law enforcement officers at the Presidential Palace had been prepared to confront an incident on site, but police have not clarified whether there were plans to move forces to another area.
This is not the first incident at DIAS as previous demonstrations also led to protesters gathering outside the Group at the roundabout.
Last December riot police clashed with protesters outside DIAS, where a demonstration took place against vaccinations and health restrictions imposed by the government.
Former minister Yiolitis takes to Twitter
Tsouroullis’ life partner, former justice minister Emily Yiolitis, was also criticized several times over police actions, including the use of Ajax in injuring an unarmed female protester in the eye after the demonstrator gave the finger to officers while dancing from a distance.
Other cases included an illegal search warrant against an activist, a female educator and single mother, after she was associated with comments on a Twitter parody account aimed at poking fun against the former minister.
But Yiolitis, who resigned her position unceremoniously after falling out of favor with the President, wrote on Twitter after the DIAS incident calling for a heavy and immediate response.
“Tonight the foundations of democracy are being threatened directly by terrorism. The response must come loudly and swiftly,” Yiolitis wrote Sunday night.
Issue of police brutality laws raised
Police officials have also called on the state to lift restrictions on law enforcement, with officer Nicos Loizides saying the use of proportional violence was necessary to confront violence.
Loizides, who heads a group within a national network advocating for police rights, said “some people have misunderstood this kind of use of violence.”
“How else are you going to arrest someone who is throwing gas bombs, holding knives, throwing stones, without using some violence?” Loizides wondered.
“The hands of law enforcement are tied,” Loizides added, saying incidents have crossed the line in the last few months and calling on parliament to “redefine police brutality laws.”