By Poly Pantelides
A CALL by the Turkish Cypriot ‘prime minister’ urging Turkish Cypriots to seek property exchanges with Greek Cypriots via the Immovable Property Commission (IPC) is both legally and logistically problematic, a leading lawyer has said.
Sibel Siber was quoted in Turkish Cypriot daily Havadis on Tuesday as saying Turkish Cypriots could “reach an agreement with the pre-1974 owner of the property they are using in the north”. After they reach an agreement, “the Immovable Property Commission could approve this [agreement],” she said.
Siber said the move would support bizonality and clear the IPC backlog, adding the economy of the ‘TRNC’ would benefit from such agreements which would also resolve problems arising from Greek Cypriot “propaganda” presenting some properties in the ‘TRNC’ as “stolen”. Peace talks between the two communities are due to resume in autumn.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in the 2010 Demopoulos case that displaced Greek Cypriots who lost their homes and properties in the Turkish invasion needed to go to the IPC in the north which was deemed an effective domestic remedy for their claims. In theory, the body offers Greek Cypriots compensation, property exchange or restitution of their properties, although in practice only a handful of cases have been settled with restitution.
Lawyer Eleni Meleagrou, whose clients have pending cases with the IPC and recently took her own IPC case all the way to the ECHR, said Siber’s proposal had legal and logistical problems.
“The only people who can apply to the IPC are Greek Cypriots who were either the owners in 1974 or are the legal heirs of those properties,” she said. So in the case of potential property exchange, a Turkish Cypriot would need to find a Greek Cypriot willing to exchange property. For this to happen, the IPC would need to be prepared to find a Turkish Cypriot owning land of comparable value, she said.
Easier said than done. Meleagrou has a client who asked for a property exchange years ago, and is still waiting.
“The first thing the IPC asked was whether we had a Turkish Cypriot property in mind in the government-controlled areas,” she said. Meleagrou and her client did not, and the IPC has been looking into a possible property exchange for some two years. “Every time I go and ask about this, they say their land registry is overburdened,” she said.
“The idea to get Turkish Cypriots to do this by themselves is not feasible,” Meleagrou said.
And IPC applications take years, partly the reason why out of over 5,000 applications lodged so far, only 412 have been concluded. Once a Greek Cypriot files an application, the ‘TRNC’s’ land registry department needs to do a search to see who the owner is, Meleagrou said adding this could take at least two years. The IPC may require a lot of supplemental information, from proving that the person registered as the owner is indeed the applicant or that the applicant is indeed the daughter of the original owner, providing birth and death certificates to boot.
But say that nonetheless a Turkish Cypriot finds a Greek Cypriot who agrees to a property exchange of his property in the north with a Turkish Cypriot property in the government-controlled areas and it all goes through in the IPC. The government would not register the property in the Greek Cypriot’s name, which comes under the interior ministry’s Guardian of Turkish Cypriot properties, Meleagrou said.
The one and only known exception to this is the case of Mike Tymvios who – with the blessings of the ECHR first in 2003 and again in 2008 – had come to a friendly property swap deal by which he exchanged his property near Tymbou in the north with a Turkish Cypriot who had owned land in Larnaca. At first, the land registry had refused to allow the transfer of title deeds for the land in Larnaca on which the government had subsequently built. It was not until last year that the government eventually agreed to approve the transfer and then purchase the land from Tymvios. At the time, Attorney-general Petros Clerides was at pains to stress the move was a “special” one off case. Because Tymvios’ case preceded the 2010 Demopoulos decision, Clerides said no precedent had been set. “The road to the ECHR has closed with the Demopoulos case,” he said.
Nevertheless, Greek Cypriots are still free to go to the IPC.
However, the ECHR recently threw out an application by Meleagrou who wanted the court to review the IPC’s decision not to grant her restitution for her family home and property. The ECHR refused to look at the case’s merits, and told Meleagrou she could have asked for any of the other two remedies available at the IPC, compensation or property exchange.
“One has to wonder if what Siber is saying in effect is that there will be occasions when the only thing the IPT is offering is property exchange,” Meleagrou said.