Anti-Racism CSO KISA continues to fight its dissolution, banks treat CSOs as ‘high-risk’
Push-backs of refugees are an ongoing concern in Cyprus. In April 2021, Cyprus authorities denied entry into the country to more than fifty Lebanese refugees travelling by boat and made them return to their port of departure. This repeated violation of refugees’ rights has been condemned by the EU human rights commissioner Dunja Mijatovic.Furthermore, in July 2022, two Syrian refugees filed a case against Cyprus with the European Court of Human Rights after they were sent back to Lebanon in September 2020.
Earlier in March 2020 the Cypriot authorities, for the first time, carried out push-backs of boats carrying 175 Syrians coming from Turkey, of whom 69 were children. Several other push-backs have been carried out since then.
Several civil society organisations condemned the ongoing push-backs and called for urgent action.
“The undersigned organisations call on the government of Cyprus to immediately halt all pushbacks to Lebanon, in violation of EU and international human rights law and the 2002 readmission agreement between Cyprus and Lebanon, and allow access to its territory to all people seeking protection at its borders. Both governments should make public any additional implementing protocols or agreements between the two countries that operationalize the readmission agreement.”
The establishment and formation of associations, organisations and foundations is governed by the Law of Associations and Foundations and other Relevant Matters of 2017 (104 (I)/ 2017) (‘the Law”). In 2020, the parliament passed an amendment to the law, specifically Article 56, with new provisions which established a new two-month deadline for the submission of administrative data by registered associations, including information about their General Assembly, their Board, their constitution and their audited accounts. A failure to meet this deadline would result in the start of a dissolution process. Not only did the provisions seem unclear to NGOs, but the allocated time frame of two months was also deemed inadequate.
In practice, the 2020 amendment has led to the dissolution of several associations. In August 2020 the Ministry of Interior published a list of 2,827 NGOs, including Action for Support, Equality and Antiracism (KISA), one of the leading organisations which fights for equality and against discrimination and racism, and informed the CSO that it had been placed on a list for "dissolution process" because of failure to comply with the new law. It gave NGOs until the end of October 2020 to make further submissions of relevant data and stated that a second final list of “names of the Associations under dissolution" would be published and that this would result in automatic deletion of the listed CSOs from the Register of Associations. Despite KISA making the relevant submission, including information on its general assembly and on its audited accounts and a request to extend the deadline to submit further documentation, the organisation was informed that it would be dissolved.
The case was brought before the Administrative Court but was rejected on the grounds that the organisation should have provided an amended constitution in order to be compliant with the Government’s attempts to bring transparency to how NGOs are funded and operated. As per the Court, this purpose was consistent with the requirement of public and constitutional order. The CSO has filed an appeal with the Supreme Court and is currently operating with significant restrictions.
The Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe and several UN Special Rapporteurs (UNSRs) condemned the government’s decision and considered the de-registration of an association for lack of compliance with formal requirements as disproportionate. In their letter, the UNSRs stated:
“We are therefore worried about the decision to reject KISA’s request for non-inclusion in the list of associations. We consider the reasoning of the decision by the General Registrar for Associations to be very troubling. Especially the fact that no extensions were granted and that it seemed to argue that NGOs, as groups of individuals exercising collectively their right to freedom of association, would fall out from the protection such right provides them with.”
Additionally, the UNSRs also highlighted that there may have been “discriminatory application of the law” as some NGOs were removed from the list of NGOs to be dissolved without submitting audited accounts or submitting only outdated accounts.
The decision for dissolution was also widely condemned by civil society groups.
#KISA works to stop racist treatment of #refugees and migrants in #Cyprus.— Amnesty EU (@AmnestyEU) March 3, 2021
Now, after 23 years, they face closure as Cyprus moves to dissolve the organisation.
Join us in supporting @KISAOfficial as they go to court to challenge this 💪https://t.co/Jft4p5b6O1
According to KISA and Euromed rights, its dissolution is part of the government’s widening crackdown on those working to protect refugee and asylum seeker rights. Prior to the case of dissolution, KISA has faced accusations of “cooperating with terrorist religious organisations,” collaborating with Turkey, of corruption and money laundering, and of contributing to the “demographic and cultural identity changes of Cyprus by Turkey”. In one example, the Minister of Interior accused KISA and the European Network against Racism (of which KISA is a member) of being linked to Islamic fundamentalist organisations and with terrorism and Turkey. Pro-government media group, DIAS Media Group, has added to this by amplifying the Minister’s smear campaign. In addition, several staff of KISA have been charged and faced prosecutions, with cases dating back to 2006.
Shortly before its dissolution, in June 2020, the Supreme Court found KISA guilty of defamation and “harmful forgery”, ordering the organisation to pay 10,000 Euros in damages to Christos Clerides after the CSO called on the Cyprus government (via a petition) to terminate the appointment of Clerides and Xenis Xenofontos to the Management Board of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). The private petition was sent in response to “Christofias Watch”, a blog written by Clerides which incited hatred and violence against a prominent journalist in Cyprus. The petition was later leaked by a journalist to Clerides, who filed the lawsuit, together with Xenofontos, who was the administrator of the blog. According to a statement by the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), this case is part of a “series of attacks and acts of harassment against KISA”.
Banks mark CSO accounts as ‘high risk’
In September 2021, the Interior Ministry presented a risk assessment methodology to CSOs and federations, without prior consultation with them, in order to meet the requirements of Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations. Based on this methodology, CSOs will be ranked according to a score which deems them in either a low, medium or high-risk category for money laundering and terrorist financing. Depending on their risk category they will be audited every five, two or one year(s) respectively. The Interior Ministry informed the participants that Cyprus banks now treat all CSOs as high risk and will therefore block accounts and other actions following instructions from the Central Bank of Cyprus to the banks, adding that the ranking will change to low risk following application of the methodology described above.
In 2022 there have been several incidents where banks have shown a tendency to treat NGOs as high-risk entities with a series of actions: bank accounts were kept frozen while performing administrative updates without any prior notice to either the legal representative(s) or staff of the organisations; there were inconsistencies in written communication of the deadlines and procedures that NGOs would need to follow to submit required documents for account updates; and refusal to open bank accounts for legally established entities. In 2022, some national banks have also announced the introduction of a fee to be charged to NGOs for the regular, compulsory administrative update of bank accounts imposed by the banks.
Civil society reports that the measures go beyond FATF recommendations and may be used as a pretext to restrict their activities.
Journalist threatened with lawsuit
In January 2023, four Cypriot police officers threatened to bring legal action for libel against investigative journalist and author Makarios Drousiotis over his book “The Mafia state” which exposes corruption in Cyprus. The officers demanded that certain chapters, which mention them, be withdrawn before the book is redistributed after it was initially published in October 2022 (as the last book of a trilogy). Since publishing his first book, the journalist reports that he has received death threats and that his communication devices were hacked. Although he reported the matter to the Electronic Crime Branch, there has been no progress on the complaint.
Cases in Northern Cyprus
Several cases have been documented against the media or journalists in Northern Cyprus, which is not under the control of the government of Cyprus.
- On 22nd February 2022, Ali Kişmir, a Turkish Cypriot columnist for newspaper Özgür Gazete Kıbrıs and President of the Cypriot press workers’ union, Basin-Sen, was informed by Turkish Cypriot authorities that he is charged for “insulting and mocking the security forces” (article 26 of the Military Crime and Penalty Law). Kişmir is facing a ten year prison sentence and a travel ban for publishing a political opinion piece a year and a half ago about the Turkish government and the Turkish security forces in Northern Cyprus. Earlier in 2021, Kişmir was briefly detained at Istanbul airport in Turkey, on his way back from a media event held by the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) in Zagreb, Croatia, on the grounds that he “poses a security threat to Turkey”.
- On 7th June 2022, Meryem Çavuşoğlu Özkurt, the director of Turkish Cypriot Bayrak Radio Television Corporation (BRTK), was sentenced to two months in prison for failing to comply with restrictions during the elections, which included a halt on broadcasting on the Geçitköy village and fenced-off city of Maraş in October 2020, imposed by the High Electoral Council (YSK). Days prior to the election, the outlet broadcast the ceremony of the re-opening of a repaired water pipeline from Turkey to northern Cyprus, which was also aired by two other private channels. Yet no action was taken against these channels, leading to concerns that the prosecution may be politically motivated. Özkurt’s lawyer appealed the decision, but the Supreme Court did not overturn the ruling.
- On 6th December 2022, the home of Turkish Cypriot journalist Kazim Denizci was raided in Northern Cyprus. The journalist, who works for Kıbrıs Radikal Gazetesi and as a columnist of the Avrupa newspaper, was arrested and then charged at a hearing the next day with “aiding a terrorist organisation” and "making propaganda for an illegal organisation”. The charges stem from two news articles from Turkey which he shared on his personal social media in August 2022. On 7th December, Denizci was released on bail of 200,000 Turkish Lira (€10,364), and barred from leaving the country. The Turkish Cypriot Journalists’ Union (KTGB) condemned the arrest.