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Cyprus judges to look into crisis, president

A man tries to look inside a branch of Laiki Bank a few hours before the re-opening of the banks on the island in Nicosia in this March 28,
A man tries to look inside a branch of Laiki Bank a few hours before the re-opening of the banks on the island in Nicosia in this March 28,

By Michele Kambas

NICOSIA (Reuters) - Supreme Court judges will launch an investigation on Thursday into almost a decade of financial profligacy which brought Cyprus to its knees last month, with a mandate from the head of state to give his own affairs special attention.

Retired judges Georghios Pikis, Panayiotis Kallis and Yiannakis Constantinides were appointed this week by newly elected President Nicos Anastasiades; he has asked them to investigate who might bear "criminal, civil and political" responsibility for events from 2006 which ultimately forced the closure of the island's second largest bank and imposed big losses on depositors in its largest in return for a bailout.

Cyprus, a euro zone minnow with a population of less than one million, has been hobbled by the downsizing of its inflated banking sector and the prospect of deep recession at least for the next two years.

"The public is entitled to have a full picture of what went wrong, what could have been done, where the mistakes were made, and by whom," former finance minister Michael Sarris told Reuters on Wednesday.

After only five weeks on the job, he stepped down on Tuesday, saying staying on was impossible since his actions would too be under scrutiny. Last year he briefly headed Popular Bank, now being wound down under a mountain of debt.

Sarris has not been accused of any wrongdoing, though he is likely to be questioned, among many on the island. President Anastasiades, a conservative elected in February, says he himself does not want to be immune from the probe.

"I ask of you to prioritize investigating, with enhanced scrutiny to all that is directly related to me," Anastasiades told the judges as he appointed them on Tuesday.

A bank statement, first published in the Cypriot communist newspaper Haravghi which maintains it is genuine, shows a company whose owners are related to Anastasiades by marriage moving money out of Popular in early March.

That was days before leaders of the euro zone stunned Cyprus by demanding a hefty levy on deposits to fund a recapitalization of the banking sector, leading to a two-week lockdown of the island's banks while the details were worked out.

The statement from Cyprus Popular Bank, purporting to belong to A. Loutsios & Sons Ltd, highlighted two transactions of 10.5 million euros each taken from its account on March 12 and 13. It does not show where the money went. It also shows five smaller inward payments at the same time.

Popular Bank, now in the process of being wound, had no official comment on the newspaper story. The Cypriot central bank declined comment.

A person close to the Loutsios family said they did not want to discuss the matter.

THE FAMILY

The company A. Loutsios & Sons Ltd has said there was nothing untoward in its business transactions.

In two statements to media, it said it shifted 10.5 million euros from Popular to Barclays Bank in Britain, and another 10.5 million euros to Bank of Cyprus, on the island, to facilitate the completion of real estate transactions.

Barclays was not immediately available for comment.

The company said it had 36.25 million deposited in Cypriot banks, of which the vast majority was still effectively locked in Bank of Cyprus and Popular, and which was subject to a writedown.

Any suggestion of anything otherwise was a "malicious and deliberate attempt to politicize perfectly legal business transactions", the company said. It did not comment on the authenticity of the statements in the media.

Pambos Papageorgiou, a lawmaker for the Communist AKEL party said it was clearly an issue to be looked into.

"A relative of the president moved so much money out of Cyprus just before the Eurogroup, and that is something which creates a lot of questions which should be investigated."

Asked what kind of questions, he said: "No-one can say anything definite at this point."

GREECE

Besides events of recent weeks, the judges have been asked to assess decisions related to Cypriot banks hoarding huge quantities of Greek bonds "while other major banks were selling them", according to the terms of reference for their inquiry.

Cypriot banks lost about 4.5 billion euros when European Union leaders agreed in late 2011 to a Greek debt writedown, designed to make that country's debt burden more sustainable.

They will also assess regulatory supervision, decisions by banks to write off loans, the soundness of fiscal policies, the conditions under which the bailout was negotiated, and whether central bank regulations were followed by commercial banks.

They will go back as far as the sale by HSBC, a long-time stakeholder in Popular, of its shareholding in 2006 to a Greek investment company, Marfin Financial Group, which led to its merger with another two Greek banks, multiplying its exposure.

Marfin has complained that actions by Cypriot regulators contributed to the bank's difficulties.

Pikis, who once chaired Cyprus's Supreme Court and is a former member of the International Criminal Court, told Reuters: "We will start tomorrow, looking at procedural matters."

(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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