Following the announcement made by President Erdogan and the Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar on July 20, about the opening-up (on a “pilot” basis) of a small segment of the fenced-off city of Famagusta, in the districts of Ayia Katerina and Ayia Zoni, i.e. from the A’ Elementary School and the girls gymnasium to the Ayia Zoni elementary school, for the resettlement of the Greek Cypriot residents of this area, on condition they apply to the Immovable Property Commission (IPC), established by the north’s local administration and thus subservient to Turkey, the issue of whether “to appeal or not to appeal” has resurfaced.
This was the subject matter of two consecutive articles of mine that were published in the Cyprus Mail (in English) and in Alithia (in Greek), on November 29, 2020 and December 6, 2020. These articles were seeking to explain certain technical aspects of this difficult dilemma and they are still accessible at the web sites of the two papers (www. cyprus-mail.com and www.alithia.com.cy).
In this article, I am attempting to summarise without too many technical details the basic drivers of the problem and render them easily comprehensible to the general public. Various messages have been transmitted such as those that stress that “an appeal entails risks” and suggesting that “the Refugees Fund should be strengthened financially in order to be in a position to support the refugees, thus averting the prospect of appealing to the ‘compensation committee’ and getting peanuts in return”. These and other similar messages are not explained or documented in a manner that would facilitate the evaluation of their validity.
I believe that the thinking, which follows, has cohesion and logic and I challenge whoever has a different opinion to state his/her position in public and to document the basis on which it is founded.
- Since 1974, the northern part of Cyprus is under the occupation of a foreign power, which effectively administers the occupied territory.
- Most Greek Cypriots have been forcibly expelled from the occupied territory and they are prohibited from returning and re-establishing themselves in their own homes.
- In the past, certain of the displaced people appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) against Turkey, seeking the recognition of their property rights on their forcefully vacated properties, with a view of securing compensation for the loss of the use of such properties (for as long as this loss continues). The ECHR recognised these rights and initially awarded compensation at the expense of Turkey, by taking into consideration the fact that there was no other legal venue for seeking a remedy for the losses inflicted by the occupation force.
- In order to redress the problem that had arisen by the awards made by the international court, Turkey ensured that an immovable property commission (IPC) would be established as the competent body for examining and satisfying claims related to the violation of fundamental human rights, in respect of immovable property located in the occupied part of Cyprus.
- In 2010, the IPC was ruled by the ECHR (in the Demopoulos Case) as constituting a satisfactory “local judicial venue” for seeking redress, which must be “exhausted”, prior to appealing to the international court, and rejected the argument advanced by the displaced persons that the IPC was a kind of a “fraud” or “a smoke screen”. Unfortunately, the international court also ruled that the actions that have rendered the “restitution” of the occupied properties unfeasible, had no impact on the issue that was being considered, even if it could be demonstrated that they were “blatantly illegal” and “scandalous”.
- The law of the subservient local administration, which governs the operations of the IPC, empowers the committee to order the “restitution” of the property or the “exchange” of the property or the “payment of compensation” for acquiring the property ownership rights and to award compensation for the “loss of use” of the property. This is on condition that title deeds issued by the Land Registry of the Republic of Cyprus and other relevant documents (such as inheritance deeds) are procured. An appeal against the decision of the IPC may be made before the Turkish Cypriot “Supreme Administrative Court” first and only afterwards to the ECHR.
- In respect of the properties located in the fenced-off area of Varosha, a further complication has arisen as a result of a case filed in 2005 by Evkaf (an organisation charged with the management of Muslim properties) before the “District Court of Famagusta” of the subservient local administration. Evkaf claims the ownership of a large segment of land both within and outside the fenced-off area. In two rulings, the court vindicated the claimant, thus giving rise to a further problem concerning the functioning of the IPC.
- This complication was addressed by the north’s “Supreme Court” which in October 2019 ruled that the IPC had no authority to examine the ownership status of properties located in the occupied part of Cyprus, at a date other than July 20, 1974. It ruled that, for the purposes of the “restitution” or the “exchange” of such properties, what must be examined is their ownership status, on the basis of the registers compiled by the Land Registry of the Republic of Cyprus, as of July 20, 1974, in conjunction with any subsequent inheritance deeds, if appropriate.
In my opinion, the conclusions which can be drawn on the basis of the above mentioned facts are the following:
- An appeal before the IPC does not constitute recognition of any state authority on the part of the plaintiff, beyond the recognition of the de facto occupation force (Turkey) identified by the ECHR and of its subservient local administration.
- Given the recognition of the IPC by the ECHR as a satisfactory “local judicial venue”, the failure to appeal to the IPC could be viewed as a form of abandoning the legal rights of a displaced person (to legally seek redress for the violation of his/her legal rights).
- The remedy offered by the IPC gives the applicant a number of options (for example to confine the claim to the “restitution” of the property and the compensation for the loss of the use of the property in the period that has lapsed).
- In the event of a failure to file a claim, it is highly likely that the properties that, to date, remain vacant will be occupied by third parties. Although this would be an illegal act, it would be an act that has been “successfully tested” over the past 47 years and which will probably preclude (or restrict) the option of claiming the “restitution” of the property, per the rules established by the ECHR itself.
- Of course, the problem resulting from the Evkaf claims concerning the ownership of these properties is a real issue but it will not be eliminated by not appealing to the IPC. In contrast, in a future hearing before the ECHR, the failure to appeal could weaken the case of the displaced person on the strength of the argument that they had the option to legally protect their rights by utilising the ruling of the “Supreme Court” that the sole relevant date for determining the ownership of the property is July 20, 1974, but failed to do so.
Do uncertainties exist in respect of the future developments of a possible application to the IPC? They certainly do. However, the critical question, which those rejecting the possibility of filing an application must answer, is whether an applicant can find themselves in a worse position by filing an application compared to not filing. I suspect that the basic argument which will be advanced in support of not filing is the risk of the indirect recognition of the local administration which is subservient to the occupying force as an independent Cyprus state authority. I believe that such a possibility is groundless, given that the international Court of Human Rights has determined – with absolute clarity – that the appropriate “legal venue” for judging on this issue is the IPC, established by the occupying force and forming an instrument of a subservient local administration.
For many Greek Cypriots, the issue of seeking the restitution of their properties located in the occupied territories is not (only) an economic issue.
Over a period of 47 years, the successive governments of Cyprus have failed to overturn the occupation of a substantial part of Cyprus that came about in 1974, as a result of a military intervention by Turkey. In my opinion, not only should the displaced persons who have lost their properties not be discouraged from claiming the restitution of these properties but they should also be encouraged and supported for doing so.
Given the decision of the ECHR to close the road for seeking redress, beyond that which goes through the IPC, the failure to appeal could be viewed as equivalent to a voluntary relinquishment of such rights and as being a form of an acceptance of the faits accomplis (particularly in those cases where the displaced persons have received some help – however negligible – in confronting the problems that had arisen as a result of being forcibly deprived of their property).
The Greek Cypriot properties (and in particular, the immovable properties) constitute the roots that connect these people with the land they have inherited over thousands of years. I believe that the displaced persons cannot remain idle and simply hand over their properties to the occupation force, without even trying to recover their rights, particularly in view of the obvious inability of our leaders to attain the reunification of Cyprus.
Christos Panayiotides is a regular columnist for the Cyprus Mail, Sunday Mail and Alithia