Each discovery of mass graves in occupied Cyprus exposes the raw grief of the families of the missing persons. Following the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 more than 1,600 Greek Cypriots were listed as ‘missing’.
Cypriot missing persons memorial tree, adorned with yellow ribbons, Nicosia, Cyprus
The Court considers that an obligation arises for Turkey to account for the fate of the missing persons
Turkey failed or refused to account for them and no bodies were returned or details given as to the whereabouts of the missing so that families could bid relatives farewell and allow dignified burials. Families grieved but fervently hoped loved ones were alive, having never received proof of death.
Finally mass graves were located and bodies exhumed and identified. Some families decided these crimes against humanity could not go unpunished. They sought redress at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) since discovering their husbands and fathers were tortured then executed by the Turkish army. The identity of Stavros Charalambous was confirmed by DNA, a post mortem showing he was tortured then shot in the head. The family of Demetris Koutras brought a case against Turkey following the discovery that he was shot in the head twice.
On 10 January 2008 the ECHR gave judgment against Turkey in the case Varnavas & Others v Turkey in respect of applications made in 1990. The panel of seven judges (the Turkish judge dissented) ruled that Turkey violated the human rights of nine Greek Cypriot missing persons and their relatives. The missing persons were seen alive after capture by the Turkish army and seen in Turkey where they were transported as prisoners of war. Turkey was found to be in breach of the following articles of the European Convention of Human Rights. Article 2: Failing to conduct effective investigation into the whereabouts of the nine missing who disappeared in Turkish custody under life threatening circumstances; Article 3: Subjecting relatives of the missing to inhuman and degrading treatment by failing to inform them of the fate of their loved ones; Article 5: Failure to conduct effective investigation into the whereabouts and fate of the nine applicants who arguably were deprived of their liberty and security at the time of disappearance.
In the Varnavas judgment the ECHR confirmed Turkey’s obligations under international treaties which include protecting the wounded, prisoners of war and civilians. Under the European Convention on Human Rights, Turkey was obliged to take reasonable steps to protect the lives of those not or no longer engaged in hostilities. Turkey submitted that any persons disappeared during its invasion of 1974 and still missing, should be presumed dead. The ECHR rejected this in its entirety.
The ECHR recognised the pain of the families stating they “must have undoubtedly suffered most painful uncertainty and anxiety and furthermore their mental anguish did not vanish with the passing of time”.
It was held as unacceptable for Turkey to suggest the Committee of Missing Persons could be a satisfactory substitute for Turkey’s obligations for effective investigation.
The ECHR described recent developments: “In 2006 the CMP began a substantial exhumation project… Some 160 sets of bones had been submitted for analysis and identifications of missing persons…”
The Court took the view that these Greek Cypriots had gone missing, last seen in areas under continuing control of Turkey since 1974. Chilling descriptions are given in the judgment and objections by Turkey which disclaimed all responsibility, notwithstanding its continuing illegal occupation of Cyprus which was not accepted by the Court.
“The Court recalls that… many persons who went missing in 1974 were detained either by Turkish or Turkish Cypriot forces. Their detention occurred at a time when the conduct of military operations was accompanied by arrests and killings on a large scale… eight combatants were last seen in areas surrounded or about to be overrun by Turkish forces… the Court considers an obligation arises for the respondent State [Turkey] to account for their fate…”
By the time of the ECHR judgment 18 years later, many parents of the missing who brought the applications passed away and the applications were taken over by their heirs.
It was a lengthy and emotional journey to reach this decision for the relatives of the nine missing persons, but they persevered and finally obtained a judgment which vindicates their claims and confirms the heinous crimes against humanity that were inflicted and continue to be inflicted by the Turkish government on the Cypriot people.