The latest battle in divided Cyprus is over foreign-owned property in island’s north

NICOSIA – Linda and David Orams carved out their own paradise two years ago in the tiny northern Cyprus village of Lapithos, building a dream villa on the side of a mountain that slopes down to the blue Mediterranean Sea. Now, a court here has told them to tear down the two-story villa – and threatened to confiscate their property back home in Britain if they don’t. The Orams are in the middle of the latest fight in divided Cyprus – this time over luxury real estate. And Cyprus’s entry last year into the European Union is adding more ammunition. Europeans who long bought property in northern Cyprus at cheap prices – often land confiscated from Greek-Cypriot refugees who fled the island’s north after a Turkish invasion 31 years ago – now face the prospect of losing that land because of Cyprus’s EU entry. British newspapers have been warning people not to buy in northern Cyprus, where hundreds of billboards advertising land and property sales line the roads that hug the pristine coast. The London Observer wrote in a full-page report that buying such holiday property «could become a legal and financial nightmare.» Despite such warnings, the Cypriot government estimates 10,000 foreigners have snapped up Greek-Cypriot property in the north, including homes in posh residential villages that local people complain tarnish the coast’s natural beauty. The flood of court cases against Europeans occupying former Greek properties has also fueled similar cases by Greek-Cypriot refugees against Turkish Cypriots living in their homes. The first such case – a Greek-Cypriot refugee suing a Turkish Cypriot for turning his home in the island’s Turkish-occupied north into a restaurant – is to be heard at a Larnaca court today. It is being seen as a major test that could potentially affect thousands of people on both sides. «We will not bow our heads in the property game and we will not allow them (the Greek Cypriots) to drag our people into a state of fear and anxiety,» said Turkish Cypriot administration chief Ferdi Sabit Soyer. Soyer, quoted Monday by the English-language Turkish-Cypriot daily Cyprus Times, said the Turkish side was for a legal and political battle with Greek Cypriots over the property issue. Recent court rulings, including one by the Human Rights Court of the Council of Europe, have reaffirmed the property restitution rights of Greek-Cypriot refugees. In the Orams’ case, a Cypriot court ordered the couple to demolish their villa in the north and pay hefty compensation to a Greek-Cypriot refugee for illegally using his property. With Cyprus’s EU entry, the ruling has greater clout because British authorities could enforce the decision against the Orams, resulting in the possible confiscation of their property in England. The invasion of Cyprus by Turkish troops in 1974 forced nearly 200,000 Greek Cypriots to leave their homes in the north and 40,000 Turkish Cypriots to relocate there from the south. More than 150,000 settlers from mainland Turkey also have arrived in intervening years, taking over Greek-Cypriot properties in violation of the Geneva Conventions. Before 1974, 82 percent of northern Cyprus territory was Greek Cypriot-owned and 16.5 percent Turkish Cypriot, according to Cypriot government statistics. That all changed, however, after Turkish-Cypriot authorities confiscated Greek Cypriot-owned properties in the north and distributed them, with title deeds, to Turkish Cypriots and mainland Turkish settlers. Much of the property that has been sold to Europeans – worth many millions of euros – is land allocated to Turkish settlers who sell it to developers, then return to Turkey. Lawyers and politicians from both sides warn legal battles between Greek and Turkish Cypriots could hurt relations amid flagging UN-led efforts to reunite the island. «This is a complicated issue and it can only be settled on the basis of an overall settlement of the Cyprus problem,» said Greek-Cypriot Interior Minister Andreas Christou. Nevertheless, Christou backed legal action against foreigners. «There is a difference between a Turkish Cypriot who has been forced by circumstances to move into a Greek-Cypriot home, and a foreigner flouting the law by buying property belonging to a Greek-Cypriot refugee for a holiday home,» he said. Last week, British estate agents and 200 mainly Britons who have bought property here met in the northern town of Kyrenia to engage a firm of British lawyers and launch a 1-million-Cypriot pound (1.9 million-euro) appeal fund to defend their cases. Two other Greek-Cypriot refugees are seeking an arrest warrant against a British estate agent – one of many who have opened offices in the north – who is selling holiday homes built on their property.