Imprisoned gangster masterminded theft of Cyprus president's body

The bodysnatching of Tassos Papadopoulos prompts soul-searching from prison and police officials while critics scorn 'godfather situation'.

The body of the former Cypriot president Tassos Papadopoulos was snatched from his grave in December 2009, and found on Monday in a freshly dug grave at a cemetery on the outskirts of  Nicosia.
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NICOSIA // A notorious rapist and killer known as Al Capone is suspected of masterminding from his prison cell the macabre theft of the body of Cyprus's former president, Tassos Papadopoulos.

Officials said his corpse was being held in an unsuccessful ransom bid until its discovery in a cemetery on Monday night - three months after it was stolen from a graveyard just kilometres away. Capone's alleged involvement is a new twist in an already bizarre case that horrified the divided island and baffled investigators. There had been no claim of responsibility, no leads and no obvious motive - until an unexpected breakthrough this week.

An Indian suspect, whom police said has confessed involvement, disclosed where the body was hidden, apparently after feeling remorse. Sarbjit Singh, 31, told investigators that he and Capone's brother exhumed Papadopoulos's body, and that the theft was ordered by the prisoner, a court heard on Wednesday. Capone, 44, whose real name is Antonis Prokopiou Kitas, has been serving consecutive life sentences since 1994 for the abduction, rape and brutal murder of two foreign women in the tourist resort of Ayia Napa.

His latest alleged outrage has prompted soul-searching among officials and politicians, as well as highly critical media comment. "A state that cannot exercise any control over a convict in prison cannot inspire great confidence among its citizens," said an editorial in yesterday's Cyprus Mail. A senior opposition parliamentarian, Ionas Nicolaou, was quoted in the same daily saying that "a godfather situation prevails within the prison walls".

Capone, who anointed himself with his alias many years ago, has embarrassed prison and police officials acutely before. In December 2008, he gave snoozing prison guards the slip at a private Nicosia clinic where he was being treated for stomach ailments. Within minutes his getaway car chanced upon three police patrol vehicles, which he rammed before speeding off, Hollywood-style, in a volley of gunfire.

There were reports Capone had lived a life of leisure during his six months at the clinic, using an illicit mobile phone to place bets while his Chinese wife spent most nights with him. He was recaptured three weeks later but the debacle led to the resignations of the justice minister and police chief. Papadopoulos's grave was desecrated at night during a thunderstorm on December 11. It was the eve of the first anniversary of his death at 74 from lung cancer.

Investigators spoke of a carefully-planned operation, saying it would have taken three or four people to shift the 250kg granite slab covering his tomb. Help was sought from Interpol, Scotland Yard and the FBI. One early conspiracy theory was that the robbery was the work of a ransom-seeking, professional Balkan crime gang; another that politically-motivated locals were responsible. But the scenario now unfolding suggests a far less sophisticated - if no less remarkable - operation carried out by just two money-motivated Greek Cypriots and an Indian migrant down on his luck.

In a statement to police, Mr Singh said he and Capone's brother, Mamas Kitas, 48, handled the grisly exhumation themselves, armed with just a pickaxe and shovel. Mr Kitas told Mr Singh they would "dig up a grave and get money", the court heard. Under torrential rain the two shunted aside the granite slab, then Capone's brother dug out Mr Papadopoulos's remains while Singh kept lookout, Yiannakis Charalambous, a police superintendent, told the court.The two men then whisked the body off to another cemetery in Mr Kitas's pickup truck, interring the remains in the grave of someone who died last year, he said.

Mr Singh was paid ?200 euros (Dh1,004) for the job, with the promise of more from his fellow suspect, which he never received, Mr Charalambous testified. He said the Indian told interrogators he had felt remorse and contacted Papadopoulos's wealthy family recently, offering to identify the corpse's location in exchange for cash so that he could start a new life abroad. Although Mr Singh's repeated attempts for a pay-off were rebuffed, he revealed where the body was hidden, Mr Charalambous said.

The motive behind the crime has been a mystery. The justice minister, Loucas Louca, said this week it was financial gain, but insisted no ransom was paid, and he ruled out any political motive. Cypriot media reported the thieves had demanded ?300,000. But representatives for the Papadopoulos family insisted no ransom demand was made. There has also been press speculation that Capone may have had the outlandish idea of exchanging the body for an early release.

Police said they are investigating 11 charges against the three suspects, including extortion and sacrilege. None has been formally charged. Papadopoulos was a controversial figure, but leaders across the political spectrum had united in condemning the "unholy" grave robbery. He was president from 2003 to 2008, although his career spanned most of the island's turbulent modern history since gaining independence in 1960. He is remembered for rallying the Greek Cypriot community in 2004 to reject a UN blueprint to resolve the long-running Cyprus problem.

Abroad, he was viewed as a hardline rejectionist who had squandered a historic opportunity to reunite the former British colony but at home he was hailed by many Greek Cypriots for standing up to the international community by rejecting a plan they saw as unfair. His body was reburied at his original resting place near Nicosia yesterday afternoon.