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Cypriots await landmark munitions blast verdict

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

A Cyprus criminal court will decide on Tuesday whether six senior officials were responsible for the island's worst peacetime disaster in which seized Iranian munitions blew up, killing 13 people on July 11, 2011.

The officials, who include then foreign minister Marcos Kyprianou and then defence minister Costas Papacostas, pleaded not guilty to manslaughter charges in connection with the killer blast at Mari naval base on the island's south coast.

Manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of life in prison in Cyprus.

The six defendants also face charges of causing death through negligence, dereliction of duty and acts which caused bodily harm, in connection with the explosion that also took out the island's main power station, crippling the economy.

It is said to be the first time in the island's legal history that so many senior officials have faced such serious charges.

"It is my hope that the court's decision will serve justice where it is deserved," Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou said at a Mari memorial service on Sunday.

"Although we don't want people wrongly convicted, we obviously want those who are at fault to be punished, even those who are politically accountable but who still failed to take responsibility for what happened," he added.

A three-judge bench at the criminal court sitting in the south coast resort of Larnaca is scheduled to deliver its verdict on Tuesday almost two years to the day after the explosion.

The other defendants are army deputy commander Savvas Argyrou. fire chief Andreas Nicolaou, deputy fire chief Pambos Charalambous and the commander of the fire service's disaster reaction unit, Andreas Loizides.

Originally eight people were due to stand trial but army Colonel George Georgiades had charges against him dropped, while former Cyprus army chief Petros Tsalikides has been charged in Greece because he could not be extradited.

During the lengthy trial, the prosecution sought to represent a picture of staggering incompetence and oversights that led to the disaster.

A general malaise of shirking responsibility among those in authority was another major prosecution argument, while fire chiefs were accused of not telling firefighters on the ground what they were up against.

A public inquiry found former president Demetris Christofias responsible for the explosion, but there was never any possibility of legal proceedings against him as the constitution gives him immunity from prosecution.

Kyprianou, Papacostas and the army commander all resigned in the wake of the blast. The deputy commander was sacked.

There was a public outcry after munitions stored at the naval base for almost three years, under searing heat in summer, exploded despite repeated warnings that they were unsafe.

Angry Cypriots used social networking sites and texting to organise street protests against what they perceived as government negligence in not preventing the accident.

Some 98 containers were piled up unprotected at the base, just 150 metres (yards) from the island's biggest power station at Vassiliko.

They were seized in February 2009 when Cyprus intercepted a Cypriot-flagged freighter bound from Iran for Syria and a UN sanctions committee said the cargo contravened a ban on Iranian arms shipments.

Christofias said the decision to keep the weapons on the island was "correct" and refused to step down despite the demands of protesters that he quit.

The public inquiry said the munitions were kept in Cyprus to placate Syria and Iran in a risky diplomatic game.

Hitherto good Cyprus relations with Iran and Syria were strained by the incident.

The loss of the power plant led to rolling daily power cuts and, as Cyprus withered under scorching summer temperatures, authorities had to import generators from Israel and Greece while seeking EU crisis funds.

The disruption crippled the island's economy with many arguing that the cost -- estimated at three billion euros -- sowed the seeds of the debt crisis that forced the government to submit a request the following year for a bailout by international creditors.

The deal the government eventually struck in March this year for emergency loans worth 10 billion euros required Cyprus to levy an unprecedented 13 billion euro levy on larger deposits in the island's two biggest banks.

Christofias refused to step down but his plummeting popularity probably lay behind decision not to seek re-election earlier this year.

Burning containers with 400 tonnes of gunpowder triggered an estimated 1.5 megaton blast that damaged 730 homes and businesses.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130708/cypriots-await-landmark-munitions-blast-verdict