Turkey’s new plan on Cyprus property disputes

For the last two years a team of dedicated Turkish researchers has been working tirelessly to map out properties on the divided island of Cyprus as part of the government’s action plan to challenge land dispute claims raised by Greek Cypriots in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The work involves examination of Ottoman era registries and records of plots and properties on the Mediterranean island, with special focus given to those that belong to a “vakıf” (waqf in English), a type of foundation established in Ottoman law dating back 500 years and still valid in Cyprus.

The need for such a move emerged during a series of trials in Strasbourg in which Turkey was found to be in violation of articles of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECtHR) with regard to some properties in Cyprus. In the case where Greek Cypriot Constantinos Lordos, together with 12 co-plaintiffs, filed an application with the ECtHR in 1990 after the Turkish military intervention blocked access to their properties in the district of Maraş (Varosha), the Turkish government failed to raise its objections to claims during the court’s evaluation of the case in the admission process and during the call for comments on the case’s merit.

Only in the later stages of the proceedings did the government try to raise an objection based on the argument that almost all the property located in the Maraş area of Famagusta belonged to a religious trust, or vakıf. But it was too late — the court had already ruled that it would review the case. According to the Turkish argument, which seems quite plausible and convincing, if the property belonged to a vakıf, its real estate could not be transferred, sold or inherited. Such properties can only be used for the purpose of the original trust laid out in the foundation’s charter. In the Lordos case, the Greek Cypriot applicants did not submit original title deeds for the lands they laid claim to, presenting rather a copy of the record provided by the Greek Cypriot agency responsible for land registry. The ECtHR did not dismiss Turkish claims as baseless but simply noted it was too late to raise them at that stage of the proceeding. It ruled against Turkey on Nov. 2, 2010, declaring that Turkish military activity had violated the right to “protection of property” of eight plaintiffs and the right to “respect for private and family life” of a further seven.

That mistake set a new plan into motion in Ankara, where the Cabinet instructed the Directorate General for Foundations (VGM) to study all vakıf properties in Cyprus. Bülent Arınç, the deputy prime minister whose resume lists the VGM, revealed the government’s new initiative during budget discussions in Parliament’s Planning and Budget Commission on Nov. 12, 2012. He said, “Important steps have now been taken on this issue. A complete inventory of lands in Cyprus has been completed. All [the deeds of] properties belonging to vakıfs were transformed into digital records and work on dividing them according to their classification is in the last stage.”

The VGM is a large government agency in Turkey with close to 2,000 staff. It has huge financial resources of its own based on the income it earns from the management of vakıfs but receives no funds from the government budget. It has a budget of TL 420 million (roughly $234 million) for 2013 and allocates half of this budget to investments. The VGM has a protocol agreement with the Cyprus Evkaf administration of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) in mapping out all vakıf properties on the island.

Arınç disclosed he personally assigned three experts to the project and that there were important findings during the study of the records in the last year. “Some of the issues requiring confidentiality were submitted to the Turkish Cypriot president,” he said, stressing that the information was also shared with officials from the Cyprus Evkaf administration, which oversees vakıf properties in the island. In the future, we might see the Cyprus Evkaf administration of the KKTC launching a series of cases in domestic courts as well as in the ECtHR to reinstate its rights over vakıf properties. The Cyprus Evkaf administration tried to intervene as a third party in the Lordos case but was rejected by the court. It can now launch suits as a complainant.

This issue is also important for Turkey’s membership talks with the EU, as the Greek Cypriots keep blocking negotiating chapters for political purposes. That is why the Reform Monitoring Group (RİG) meeting which took place in Bursa in early November was expanded to include Arınç for the first time. The RİG is usually attended by four Cabinet members from the foreign, interior, justice and EU affairs ministries. The RİG, which was established in September 2003, closely follows work on the progress of Turkey’s EU alignment. In the last meeting, the VGM made a presentation on the progress of property issues involving non-Muslims in Turkey, as well as efforts for mapping out vakıf estates in Cyprus and other foreign countries.

Vakıf principles, which took effect on the island in 1571, are still valid there today. The rules were upheld in the treaty signed by Great Britain and the Ottoman Empire in 1878 and were also referred to in the London and Zurich agreements of 1959-60. According to court decisions in Famagusta, around 90 percent of Varosha, in the Famagusta district, belongs to the Abdullah Paşa Vakıf (Foundation) and the Lala Mustafa Paşa Vakıf. According to rules regulating vakıfs, the deeds were dedicated in perpetuity to the Muslim religious foundations and as such could not have been transferred to individuals.

Turkey’s nationalists are very sensitive on this issue and keep applying pressure on the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government in this regard. Erkan Akçay, a deputy from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), is the point man for nationalists who often raise this issue in the Turkish Parliament. He claimed that most of the land in southern Cyprus was registered to Turkish vakıfs in the Ottoman era. On the island as a whole, two-thirds of the territory was owned by vakıfs. This includes British bases on the island located in Dhekelia and Akrotiri .

The comprehensive layout of vakıfs in Cyprus can also help Turkey in settling disputes in the Immovable Property Commission (IPC), founded by the KKTC in 2010 to settle land and property claims brought forward by Greek Cypriots to the ECtHR. In the 2010 Demopoulos v. Turkey case, the court recognized IPC as “an appropriate domestic body” for dealing with disputes and subsequently directed more than 1,400 cases to the commission. Lordos and others v. Turkey was the last case the court heard regarding similar lawsuits.

As of Nov. 20, 2012, 4,078 applications have been lodged with the commission. Of these, 279 have been concluded through out-of-court settlements and nine through formal hearings. To date, the KKTC government has paid almost $143 million to the applicants in compensation. Unearthing of vakıf properties on the island with historical records will help the Turkish Cypriot government challenge many, if not most, of the claims raised by Greek Cypriots that involve trust properties. It will certainly cut back on compensation.

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