Cyprus authorities have kept a man in detention in unsuitable conditions without sunlight, fresh air or outdoor facilities for 256 days, in essence, because he failed to acquire a ‘pink slip’ in his last year of study at a Nicosia college in 1997.
Sayed Farzin Amirkalali, 47, is a computer engineer from Iran. He has spent the last eight and a half months locked up in Lakatameia police station, separated from his wife and ten-year-old son.
He is not a criminal.
In fact, he is a scientist, responsible for designing the Iranian version of the “voice command wheelchair” to help provide mobility to paralysed victims of the Iran-Iraq war. He is an expert on robotics and wants to develop his research so that a wheelchair can be instructed to move not just by voice alone, but using brain signals.
For the last three weeks, he has been on hunger strike in a Lakatameia holding cell, accepting only tea and water. Last Friday, police took him for a third time to hospital for treatment. Their patience with Amirkalali appears to be thinning.
This time, they refused him a phone call to inform his family. Instead, an inmate at the detention centre alerted his wife, Behnoosh, and Greek Cypriot friend, Nikolas Papaioannou, a classmate from his days at Intercollege in the 1990s.
He was examined by a doctor and taken for X-rays but the entire discussion between the medical staff and police was in Greek. The patient remained unaware of his condition.
The photos of Amirkalali after his hospital visit, acquired by the Sunday Mail, reveal a shattered, emaciated man who insists on continuing his hunger strike until those who usurped his freedom explain themselves, or better still, until he can eat again with his wife and child at the same table.
“He’s a wreck, physically and psychologically,” said Papaioannou, who saw him briefly at the hospital.
“They say he illegally stayed in the country in 1997 after his visa expired. That is no reason to keep someone locked up for eight and a half months. He has a clean criminal record both here and in Iran. This is discrimination and a violation of his human rights,” said Papaioannou.
“I’ve known him since 1993. We went to college together. This man is a scientist, he can deal with robots, everything. The state could have used this man’s knowledge. If they don’t want him, then let him go,” he said.
Speaking to the Sunday Mail during brief access to a mobile phone, Amirkalali said: “Two years ago, my neighbours discovered I had converted to Christianity [religious conversion away from Islam is illegal in Iran]. I left Iran for Cyprus with my family before they could arrest me.
“On the day I made my asylum application on November 23, 2011, they came and arrested me in front of my wife and son. They took me to Lakatameia and told me it would only be for a few days. There is no TV, no sunlight, no open space to exercise. A day is a day here,” he added.
The story of Amirkalali is a complicated, sad one, highlighting the plight of those who leave their homes for a better, safer future and end up in Cyprus, in a system that has few qualms condemning people to indefinite detention.
Last month, Ombudswoman Eliza Savvidou warned of more unrest if immigrants continue to be held in detention – often in Lakatameia or Block 10 of Nicosia Central Prison – in unsuitable locations for lengthy periods while awaiting deportation, following a fire started in Block 10.
Many end up in a police cell not because they have committed a criminal offence, but based on an administrative decision to hold them while awaiting deportation.
In a 2011 report, she highlighted that Lakatameia holding cells are “unsuitable for detention”. Detainees stay the whole time in the wing or cell without contact with the outside world, natural light or clean air. In the long term, this has clear and serious consequences on their physical and mental health, she said.
She blasted the authorities’ for choosing “as a rule” to almost always opt for detention: the most “onerous and coercive measure” for anyone set for deportation.
Detention should be a last resort and should not exceed six months except in “exceptional cases” and only where efforts to deport that person continue, said Savvidou.
On June 12, 2012, Amirkalali’s ten-year-old son sent a handwritten letter to the ministry, saying: “My father is in Lakatameia police station for 6 months and 2 weeks. It’s 2 weeks that im [sic] waiting for my father to be released. I have missed my father and I need him. Please release my father.”
Under Cypriot law, if there is no reasonable prospect of deportation, the person in question must be immediately released.
So, on what grounds is Amirkalali being detained for deportation?
The ombudswoman’s office sent two letters to the Interior Ministry asking this very question, as has Amirkalali. Demetris Demetriou, a legal adviser for Future Worlds Centre (funded by UNHCR in Cyprus) has sent one letter. To date, none have received a reply.
The Sunday Mail spoke to the Interior Ministry’s Permanent Secretary Andreas Assiotis who said Amirkalali spent 11 months illegally in Cyprus in 1997 after which, he was put on the stop list.
Despite the fact he returned to Cyprus with a legitimate visa four times since 1997, when Amirkalali applied for asylum last November, immigration “correctly arrested” him, said Assiotis.
“These are the facts, he was on the stop list. He is illegal,” he said.
When pressed to elaborate, the ministry official questioned why the 47-year-old delayed applying for asylum after arriving in Cyprus last summer, hinting at possible abuse of the asylum system.
We asked Amirkalali the same question.
“In 1990, I came to Cyprus as a student to study Computer Engineering at Intercollege. Because my English was poor, it took me a longer time to finish my studies. In1996, I asked for an extension of my visa for one more year to finish my studies but immigration would not issue me a pink slip,” he said.
According to Amirkalali, the authorities “agreed” with the college to let him stay another year without a pink slip to finish his degree. During that year, he was never contacted or informed by immigration that he was “illegal”.
“I was so naïve to trust and believe their words that everything was settled,” he said.
On July 16, 1997, his birthday, Amirkalali left Cyprus of his own free will with a Bachelor’s degree in hand.
Three years later and newly married, the Iranian graduate chose Cyprus for his honeymoon.
In 2010, he brought his wife and son for a three-week holiday to visit close Cypriot friends made during his studies.
“Since 1997, I came to Cyprus four times and every time I got a visa and was legally here and no one said anything about my name being on the stop list. I had no problem on arrivals or departures,” he said.
Two years ago, Amirkalali converted to Christianity. When his neighbours found out, he said he feared for the safety of his family.
“Apostasy is punishable by death. They (Iranian authorities) will arrest you and torture you to give names of other Christians and eventually sentence you to death.”
According to the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, under Iran’s strict interpretation of Islam, anyone converting to another religion could face the death penalty or at least life imprisonment.
Amirkalali decided to move his family to Canada. Given his financial security and innovative research skills, he was confident in securing a ‘professional migrant’ visa.
“I couldn’t wait three to five years to apply to Canada from Iran. Every minute was a risk. I told my wife I have friends in Cyprus, it is a very hospitable country, they are Christians. Let’s go there and from there to Canada,” he said, considering that the visa application in Cyprus would take much less time, six months to a year.
This is the point where the Cypriot authorities appear to reach a mental block.
Sometimes, people may leave a country in fear but still wish to be masters of their own destiny, wanting to start new lives with their heads held high. He chose to return to higher education in Cyprus.
“The one year student visa would provide me with two things: a Masters degree and enough time to apply for an immigrant visa to Canada,” Amirkalali said.
Unfortunately for him, the college he applied to could offer cheap fees, but no visa.
Unable to wait, he brought his family to Cyprus on a tourist visa. Reminded by the college that one can only acquire a student visa from the country of origin, he returned to Iran alone in secret, avoiding his hometown. Further delays compelled him to return to Cyprus on a business visa in the hope of trading in second-hand computers until the college could sort out his student visa. It couldn’t. On the day his business visa expired, Amirkalali ran out of options and applied for asylum.
He was detained immediately. It’s been eight and a half months. His asylum was rejected. He has appealed. During his time in detention, the 47-year-old has been unable to apply for a Canadian visa.
“I am not a criminal. If I had something to hide I would never have been up front from the beginning about my story,” he said.
“I had everything in Iran: a house, a job, friends, but I had to abandon them to save my family.”
Now, he awaits the decision of the Refugee Reviewing Authority, wondering “why me and my family are considered so unwanted or so dangerous for your country”.
According to Demetriou, his case is “tragic” and his detention “unlawful”.
This is disputed by Assiotis who appears to favour the letter of the law over its spirit.
Meanwhile, the ombudswoman clearly doubts whether the ministry’s policy on detention and deportation even falls within the letter of the law.
As Demetriou noted, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled in two cases that the deportation of an Iranian Christian convert back to Iran would put his life at serious risk, amounting to a violation of Article 3 of the European Human Rights Convention.
During Cyprus’ EU presidency, as the Interior Ministry attempts to conclude negotiations on a Common European Asylum System by the end of the year, Amirkalali’s fate and that of his family remain in the balance, while the question arises, how many more cases like this are hiding in the artificially lit cells of Cyprus’ detention centres?