NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — It’s more than the grizzly body count that’s numbed people on the small east Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus.
The country may have experienced mass killings decades ago during inter-ethnic conflict, but the self-confessed crimes of a military officer are something new for the island of around 1 million people.
The army captain told authorities over several days last month that he killed five foreign women and two of their daughters. Police have found bodies in a flooded mineshaft, the abandoned mine’s toxic lake and a pit at a military firing range.
The officer is widely acknowledged to be Cyprus’ first serial killer. Authorities haven’t named him publicly.
Questions about police ineptitude or indifference possibly allowing the suspect to keep killing for about 2 ½ years after the first victim was reported missing have been part of the painful fallout.
At a second vigil for the seven slaying victims outside the presidential palace in Nicosia on Friday, participants also expressed concerns that racism and economic inequality were other factors; many women from the Philippines work as housekeepers in Cyprus, and four of the victims were Filipino.
“I mean, if it would be a Cypriot woman missing for so long, they would definitely do something,” Katarzyna Kyrlitsias, who is from Poland and married to a Cypriot citizen, said. “But because we’re foreigners, they think nobody would find them, nobody would look for them.”
Residents, immigrant rights activists and government officials say they want to know if and exactly how police failures contributed to killings instead of preventing them.
Yiota Papadopoulou, whose husband is a prominent Cypriot politician, said she asked in October 2016 for help learning the whereabouts of a Romanian woman and her child after the pair vanished.
A police officer told her authorities had good reason to believe 36-year-old Livia Florentina Bunea took her 8-year-old daughter to the ethnically divided nation’s breakaway Turkish Cypriot north, Papadopoulou said.
“I believe that maybe, some other women could have been saved,” she told public broadcaster RIK.
It was only the chance discovery of 38-year-old Mary Rose Tiburcio’s bound body down the mineshaft on April 14 that sparked a full investigation. Authorities detained the suspect soon after tracking the dead woman’s online message exchanges with the army captain.
The head of the Cyprus Domestic Workers’ Association, Louis Koutroukides, has recounted that when he reported Tiburcio missing last year, a police officer said he was “too old to concern himself with Filipino women.”
Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades has promised the government would scrupulously investigate both the “abhorrent murders” and the “actions or failures” of police in following up on missing person cases.
Anastasiades fired Police Chief Zacharias Chrysostomou on Friday for what he said was “possible negligence” in carrying out swift and thorough investigations that could have saved lives.
Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou, who resigned Thursday, also spoke of “possible mistakes” by law enforcement. He also alluded to darker “attitudes and perceptions” pervading society “that honor no one.”
Cyprus has a Filipino community of about 14,000 that experiences discrimination and exploitation, according to civil rights advocate Lissa Jataas. Four of the people the suspect said he killed, including Tiburcio and her 6-year-old daughter, were Filipino.
A noticeable number of Filipino immigrants earn 400 euros ($450) per month working long hours as housekeepers for employers who hold their passports and work permits.
“We’re very vulnerable to abuse and harassment at work because our workplace is our home as well,” Jataas said, adding that many workers keep complaints to themselves for fear of being deported.
Ester Beatty, chair of the Federation of Filipino Organizations in Cyprus, said she hopes the killings “serve as a wake-up call to those nasty employers” to adhere to European employment standards.
It’s a view shared by others at Friday’s protest vigil. Guarab Nepal said he feels as if people from Asian countries are ignored in Cyprus
“The government should respect the people who came here to work,” he said.
Even the police’s most ardent supporters concede that the investigation of the initial missing persons’ reports were insufficient. Police Support Association head Neophytos Papamiltiadous acknowledged a lack of proper oversight by those officers’ immediate superiors.
However, Papamiltiadous rejected the notion that racism was a major factor, noting that foreign workers do cross into the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north without notifying authorities.
Divided in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup by supporters of union with Greece, Cyprus’ northern third is an unrecognized entity and Cypriot police have no jurisdiction there. The legal vacuum affords those who want to disappear a way out.
But Papamiltiadous said that’s certainly no excuse for lackadaisical police work.
With no real voice, it is easy for some police officers to ignore foreign worker complaints or missing person reports if they’re under no pressure to do so, said Stefanos Spaneas, a professor of social work at the University of Nicosia.
Spaneas said in his experience with working with migrants and refugees it’s less a matter of police racism than one of “stupidity” within a disorganized force made up of officers earning low pay.
Kyrlitsias, the Polish woman with a Cypriot spouse who attended the vigil outside the palace, said the killings have changed how she feels in Cyprus regardless of what comes out of the serial killer investigation.
“Cyprus is a nice country and actually is very safe,” she said. “But what happened now, it’s very difficult to feel safe because you never know who will text you.”