REFUGEE Meletis Apostolides took a risk when he decided to sue David and Linda Orams because they had built villa on his land in Turkish-occupied Lapithos.
His subsequent decision to apply to a British court for the execution of the Cyprus court order and the positive outcome – after the ruling of the European Court of Justice – was greeted as a triumph of justice and the principles of the European Union.
The court decision recognised the right to ownership and put the brakes on the continuing development of Greek Cypriot properties in the north. The legal value of the decision is significant, but if it is not utilised rationally, it could turn into the nightmare of the Cyprus problem.
Recently, the Cyprus Republic settled a case that had been brought before the European Court of Human Rights by Turkish Cypriot Sofi Nezire. It agreed to pay her €500,000 as damages for loss if use of one-and-a-half houses (she is co-owner in the second) in Larnaca in which Greek Cypriot refugees are living. This settlement has opened Pandora’s Box with regard to Turkish Cypriot properties in the areas controlled by the Republic.
After 1974, the Republic put all Turkish Cypriot properties under the guardianship of the Interior Minister, who prohibits their sale, exchange and transfer because of the state of emergency. So far so good. However, without following proper expropriation procedures, the Republic took large expanses of Turkish Cypriot-owned land for development projects and for refugee estates.
The whole of the old Larnaca Airport and a part of the new one were built on Turkish Cypriot land. The owner of the land is a citizen of the Republic lives in Larnaca and has a Cyprus passport and ID card. The government has been paying him a handsome monthly allowance as part of its efforts to persuade him not to claim his property in the courts.
What would happen if he applies to a Cyprus court demanding the demolition of the old Larnaca Airport? How can the court reject such an application, given its decision in the Orams case?
Like Apostolides, the man is a Cypriot citizen. And what would happen if Turkish Cypriots come to our courts en masse, demanding compensation for loss of use of their properties and restitution? Will our government demolish the refugee estates? Will it expropriate all the Turkish Cypriot land now? The amounts involved would be prohibitive and the political consequences devastating.
Until now, the Republic had the Law of the Guardian which froze all transactions of Turkish Cypriot-owned properties and prohibited restitution. But part of the settlement reached with Sofi Nezire, includes the written undertaking by the Cyprus Republic for the amendment of the Guardian Law so as to allow all Turkish Cypriots living outside Cyprus or in the unoccupied areas, to take back their properties.
At least 100,000 Turkish Cypriots are registered citizens of the Republic. A large number of them live in the UK but should we be surprised if more and more of them decided to move back to the island to take back ownership of their properties which could be worth millions of euro at today’s prices? The financial incentive cannot be underestimated.
This is not just idle speculation or alarmism. After the government’s undertaking at the ECHR it is a very real possibility. This would not be the only unpleasant development. Soon, the ECHR is expected to refer the thousands of recourses filed by Greek Cypriots against Turkey to the compensation commission in the north. In other words, while the Greek Cypriots would have to apply to the commission of a non-recognised entity and receive peanuts as compensation for their properties, Turkish Cypriots would apply to the Republic’s courts and be given back their properties.
The only thing that could spare us from this scenario would be a political solution, even though prospects for this are not very rosy. Resorting to the law as tool for securing a better solution might be useful, but the idea that the legalistic approach could supplant political negotiations is now totally discredited.