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Media Watch 2010

26 March 2010
Source: The Irish Times
Author: Michael Jansen
Greek-Cypriot refugees see European rights court ruling as ethnic cleansers' charter
For Greek Cypriots who lost homes and businesses, a fair property settlement is key…

For Greek Cypriots who lost homes and businesses, a fair property settlement is key, writes MICHAEL JANSEN 

MANY GREEK Cypriot refugees from the Turkish invasion of 1974 are coming to regard a recent ruling of the European Court of Human Rights as an ethnic cleansers’ charter.

The ECHR decided that refugees seeking legal recourse are obliged to apply to a property commission established by Turkey, the power exercising control in the breakaway state recognised only by Ankara. This commission has resolved 85 of 433 cases brought before it, none involving full restitution of ancestral homes or lands. If applicants do not receive just satisfaction within five years they can return to the ECHR.

The ECHR observed that restitution may not always be possible because 35 years had elapsed since Greek-Cypriot applicants “lost possession of their property. The local population has not remained static … Turkish-Cypriot refugees from the south have settled in the north; Turkish settlers … have arrived in large numbers. Greek-Cypriot property has changed hands … whether by sale, donation or inheritance”.

The court also mentioned that bases housing 30,000 Turkish occupation troops could negatively affect restitution. Greek-Cypriot property constituted 58.2 per cent of land in the north, 16.2 per cent belonged to Turkish Cypriots and 22.8 per cent was public land.

Loukis Loucaides, a former judge on the ECHR (1998-2008), told The Irish Times, “This decision is a political judgment expressing positions incompatible with basic principles of international law and even with previous judgments of the court itself.”

He argued that under international law, an occupying country cannot expel inhabitants of an occupied area or deprive them of their property, dispose of expropriated property, settle its own citizens in this territory, or change laws or create institutions. With this judgment, he said the court is “illegally implying that the occupying country …may be justified in keeping properties to serve its illegal occupation” and “policy of ethnic cleansing”. He asked what the reaction would have been if during the second World War French citizens had been told to apply to Berlin for recourse after their rights had been violated by the Nazis.

In his view, “political pressures” have been exerted on the court by Turkey, the UK and US with the aim of securing a judgment Ankara favours. This judgment is “to my mind a catastrophe not only for human rights or for the Greek Cypriots but for the standing and credibility of the court itself”.

Other Cypriot lawyers agree. Constantis Candunis said, however, the Strasbourg judgment “does not impact on” the recent verdict of a British court awarding a Greek-Cypriot refugee damages for trespass and ordering a British couple to demolish their house built on his land. The British court also called on other European courts to uphold and implement decisions of courts in EU member Cyprus.

Achilleas Demetriades stressed the importance of the court’s statement that Turkey recognises its responsibility for what happens in the occupied area as well as for providing remedies for violations of Greek-Cypriot property rights.

Since Turkey will not allow Greek Cypriots to return to their property, he said mass appeals to the Turkish property commission could be considered so that Ankara could be compelled to “pay the rent” in the form of compensation for loss of use. He estimated that compensation claimed for the period from 1974 through 2010 could amount to $16 billion. He noted the ECHR still has to award damages on 30 cases decided before the recent judgment.

Cyprus president Demetris Christofias does not favour mass legal action and argues that “all aspects” of the Cyprus problem “must be resolved by political means”.

During 18 months of negotiations aimed at reunifying the island in a bizonal, bicommunal federation, Mr Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat have not yet discussed the property issue.

This effort could be complicated by the ECHR’s decision.

The ruling could prompt developers in the north to rush to build on Greek-Cypriot property, making negotiations on property all the more difficult.