BRICKS & MORTAR: Cyprus concedes to Turks on property

By bne IntelliNews February 16, 2010

David O'Byrne in Istanbul -

The resolution in January of a long-running property rights case at the European Court of Human Rights promises to further complicate the already complex issue of property ownership on the divided island of Cyprus.

The court had been expected to rule in favour of 84-year-old Turkish Cypriot Nezire Sofi, who claimed that the refusal by the Cyprus government to allow her to exercise ownership rights over her property on the Greek side of the island breached European law.

In a surprise move just days before the expected ruling, the Cyprus government acceded the case and agreed to pay Sofi €500,000 compensation and to allow her to dispose of her property. More surprisingly, the government also promised to amend the law that gave the government the right to exercise control over the property of Turks who had fled the southern half of the island following the invasion by Turkish troops in 1974. That invasion, which left the island split into an internationally recognized "Greek Cypriot" state on the south of the island and an unrecognized "Turkish Cypriot state" in the north, resulted in around 65,000 Turks moving from the south to the north, and around 160,000 Greeks moving in the opposite direction.

Differing claims

However, not everyone is convinced of the Cyprus government's good intentions. "It's not clear yet whether the law will apply to land belonging to all Turkish Cypriots, or just those like Nezire Sofi who have left the island," says Sofi's lawyer Zaim Necatigil.

Necatigil explains that under Cyprus law, Turks who have left and those who still live in the north are regarded differently, with those in the north having been given former Greek-owned properties by the Turkish administration. "In order to be in line with human rights law, they must treat everyone the same," argues Necatigil, adding that 10 more similar cases are still pending at the European Court.

It is far from clear how many of the Turks in North Cyprus who lost property in the south of the island will wish to reclaim it. In establishing their de-facto state in the north of the island, the Turkish authorities allotted former Greek properties to Turkish refugees, comparable to the property they had left behind, awarding them full property deeds. Most are believed to prefer to stay put, rather than reclaim their lost lands in the south. "Some, though, will try to reclaim their lands," says Emine Irk, another lawyer who has worked extensively on property issues, pointing out that land in the south of the island is worth far more than in the north.

In most cases, they will find their property legally untouched, administered by the Cypriot state pending a political settlement, explains Irk, adding that some large tracts of Turkish property have been used for civil projects such as Larnaca Airport, and housing for Greek refugees from the north - who have long clamoured for deeds to their former Turkish property.

The situation is less clear cut in the north where many Turkish refugees who were given Greek property have since sold up and moved on, leaving the new owners with the problem of dealing with the former Greek owners, some of whom in turn have resorted to legal action to force the return of their property. Most significantly, the Court of Appeal in London in January ruled that a British couple must demolish their holiday home and hand back the land to its rightful Greek owner and pay him damages, or face seizure of their assets in the UK. The ruling has shocked British residents of the Turkish half of the island, many of whom are retirees who now face both losing their homes in Cyprus and being forced to pay compensation to the property's former owners.

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