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Media Watch 2003

10 May 2003
Source: Cyprus Mail
Comment: The following article appeared in the Cyprus Mail of Nicosia on 10 May 2003.
Inexcusable behaviour on the property issue

SPEAKING on a morning radio programme earlier in the week, Nicosia lawyer Achilleas Demetriades argued that property was the most important issue of the Cyprus problem and that once it was solved, everything else would fall into place. Yet despite the critical importance of the issue and its many implications, no Cyprus government ever developed a comprehensive and consistent policy for dealing with it, he said. In fact, the authorities do not even seem willing to enforce the existing law whenever a Turkish Cypriot decides to exercise his or her property rights in the free areas.

In the absence of a policy, populist politicians -- some of whom may have vested interests -- dictate government decisions which are in many instances blatant violations of the law and the constitution. When the current Governor of the Central bank was Interior Minister, for instance, he publicly declared that he would never allow a Greek Cypriot refugee to be evicted from his home so that its Turkish Cypriot owner could move in. He retracted the following day, after the Attorney-general pointed out that such action would be a gross violation of the law, but it was still indicative of the attitude of politicians. The same is happening today, with ministers, deputies and bureaucrats advocating action outside the bounds of the law.

This disregard for the law, as far as the property rights of Turkish Cypriots are concerned, indirectly allows government bureaucrats to flout regulations and to act arbitrarily. Three times the Ombudswoman has censured a government department for refusing to pay the compensation due to a Turkish Cypriot woman whose property had been confiscated by the state. In the past couple of weeks, it has been reported (without the authorities denying it) that bureaucrats have been ignoring requests by Turkish Cypriots to transfer ownership of their properties in the free areas to their children. Requests for information are also being ignored.

Meanwhile, Interior Minister Andreas Christou has been taking the same narrow-minded approach as his predecessors, saying there is no way a refugee would be evicted from a Turkish Cypriot property to make way for its owner. This is a perfect illustration of this lack of policy for dealing with the property issue. After all these years, there should have been a scheme in place by which a refugee would be offered financial assistance and compensation, in order to move somewhere else. And there would have been alternative housing or land to offer, if the administration of Turkish Cypriot properties by the state was not so monumentally disorganised and mismanaged.

But how can there be a policy when the government department administering Turkish Cypriots properties has consciously ignored most of the provisions of the 1991 law, governing the leasing of these properties? Some have been leased to people who are ineligible (non-refugees or refugees who have other property and are sub-letting it), while others are using them for reasons other than those stipulated in the contracts. Such properties should have been reclaimed by the government, because the holders are violating the conditions of the lease. If there was a policy, the government would have created computerised records of all these properties and the lease conditions in order to keep track of everything. Tens of thousands of pounds were invested in computer software and hardware but the computerisation never took place. Presumably the authorities were not interested in keeping easily accessible records, since then they might have to apply the law.

So now the government is once again in a quandary over what to do with Turkish Cypriots wanting to exercise their property rights. Like its predecessors, the government has been hiding behind the selectively enforced law of 1991, which is of dubious constitutionality and remains valid only because it has never been challenged in the Supreme Court. But a law which prevents Turkish Cypriot citizens of the republic from exercising their property rights, on the absurd grounds that they had not been living in the free areas for a specific period, is not just a violation of human rights, it also smacks of racist discrimination. Christou's assurance that the Turkish Cypriots would be able to get their properties back after a Cyprus solution has no legal or rational justification. Is this not similar to what the occupation regime has been doing -- depriving people from exercising their right to property -- and the reason Turkey was successfully taken to the European Court of Human Rights by Titina Loizidou?

This is a funny way of proving to Turkish Cypriots that they have a stake in the Cyprus Republic -- which is supposed to treat all of its citizens, irrespective of ethnic background, as equals before the law. It is also a funny way of showing them that the Republic can safeguard and guarantee their rights and interests. The government should be encouraging them to return to their properties (and have compensatory and support schemes for affected refugees) as part of a strategy for further discrediting Rauf Denktash's separatist propaganda and objectives. Instead, we are pushing them back into the Turkish Cypriot leader's arms thanks to our short-sighted and legally dubious choices.

This is why all the nonsense must be set aside and a long-term policy formulated for dealing in a consistent, fair and rational way with the issue of property. There is an opportunity for our state to win the trust of the Turkish Cypriots and further undermine the Denktash argument for partition -- and it must be seized. All that needs to be done is for the law to be applied indiscriminately for all citizens."