NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) – Hundreds of people turned up for a protest vigil outside Cyprus’ presidential palace Friday to mourn seven women and girls who police say a military officer confessed to killing and to question if authorities failed to adequately investigate when foreign workers were reported missing.
The protest’s organizer used a bullhorn to read out the victims’ names as well as those of other missing women, and others at the memorial shouted “Where are they?” in response. Some participants held placards decrying “sexist, misogynist and racist” attitudes about women who work as housekeepers or in low-paying service jobs.
In a poignant moment, a group of tearful Filipino women held lighted candles and bowed their heads in prayer for the three women and one child of Filipino descent who are believed to be among the victims. A 35-year-old Cypriot National Guard captain is in custody facing multiple homicide charges.
“I felt obliged to do something for these women, all the missing women, all the killed women,” protest organizer Maria Mappouridou said. “I think deep down, all that we want, what everybody wants, is justice.”
Federation of Filipino Organizations in Cyprus chair Ester Beatty said she hoped the event, and the tragedy of the deaths, raise public awareness about migrant workers.
“Right now, it’s really difficult for us to accept what has happened, what is going on. Beatty said. “We still need a lot of answers.”
Beatty’s group held a silent prayer vigil last Sunday, a week after the discovery of a Filipino woman’s body in an abandoned mineshaft triggered the investigation that led to the captain’s arrest. Police identified her as Mary Rose Tiburcio, 38.
Tiburcio and her 6-year-old daughter had been missing since May of last year. Investigators zeroed in on the captain as a suspect and arrested him after scouring Tiburcio’s online messages.
While investigating her death and searching for Tiburcio’s daughter, police found another body in the flooded mineshaft 32 kilometers (20 miles) west of the capital, Nicosia. Cypriot media have identified the victim as 28-year-old Arian Palanas Lozano, also from the Philippines.
Investigators now think the missing 6-year-old was killed, too. On Thursday, the suspect told them while under questioning about four more victims and gave directions to a military firing range.
The body of a woman, who according to the suspect was of Nepalese or Indian descent, was found buried there.
From the suspect’s statements and information from the investigation, Cypriot police think the other three victims they know about so far are a 31-year-old Filipino woman who has been missing since December 2017, Maricar Valtez Arquiola, and a Romanian mother and daughter.
Cypriot media identified the mother as Livia Florentina Bunea, 36, and her 8-year-old daughter as Elena Natalia Bunea. The two are believed to have been missing since September 2016.
Police said the suspect will appear in court Saturday for another custody hearing. He can’t be named because he hasn’t been charged with any crimes yet.
The scale of the ones he allegedly committed has horrified people in Cyprus, a small nation with a population of just over a million people where multiple slayings are rare.
President Nicos Anastasiades said Friday that he shared the public’s revulsion at “murders that appear to have selectively targeted foreign women who are in our country to work.”
“Such instincts are contrary to our culture’s traditions and values,” Anastasiades said in a statement from China, where he was on an official visit.
Cyprus police have faced criticism from immigrant rights activists who said they didn’t act quickly enough to locate the victims. The country has 80 unsolved missing person cases, going back to 1990.
Police chief Zacharias Chrysostomou said a three-member panel has been assigned to review whether officers followed correct protocols in their handling of recent cases.
As the president spoke, investigators intensified the search for bodies of victims at the firing range, a reservoir and a man-made lake near the abandoned copper pyrite mine.
Five British law enforcement officials – including a coroner, a psychiatrist and investigators who specialize in multiple homicides – were coming to Cyprus to help with the investigation.
On Friday, police spokesman Andreas Angelides again defended how the force dealt with missing person reports. He said investigations would have been more effective if lawmakers had taken the department’s recommendation to give law enforcement agencies legal authority to access a missing person’s personal data, telephone records and emails.