By Helena Smith
Greek Cypriots who claim they were tortured by colonial forces when they were members of a guerrilla group in the 1950s are seeking damages from the British government.
More than 50 years after the alleged human rights abuses took place, a preliminary high court hearing on Tuesday will consider whether a case brought by 35 former fighters for the National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters –EOKA– should be heard exclusively under English law or Cypriot law as well.
The hearing launches a long legal process with echoes of an earlier high court decision that allowed elderly Kenyans to claim damages from the British government for torture also suffered under colonial rule during the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s.
Speaking from the island’s capital Nicosia, Thassos Sophocleous, who heads the EOKA Veterans’ Association, told the Guardian the hearing marked “a very big day”.
Like him, most of the claimants are now in their eighties. Two are women. One has described how at the age of 16 she was raped in a forest clearing by British special branch officers before being subjected to days of brutal interrogation for her role in EOKA.
“We want justice”, said Sophocleous. “We are not against Britain. We have many friends and relatives there. What happened was because of politics. We fought for freedom and union with Greece, we voted for it in a referendum overwhelmingly but instead, we were tortured and killed”.
At 84, the retired headmaster, who led a group of EOKA guerrillas in the Pentadaktylos mountains, says he vividly recalls the torture he was forced to endure over a 17-day period after his arrest in 1956. Systematic beatings at the hands of officers in the British army and police security branch, he claimed, left him hard of hearing and with spine and knee injuries.
“We would much prefer that such unpleasant things never had to surface in court”, he said. “We certainly don’t want to be cause for tension in [bilateral] relations, but our case is not dissimilar to that of the Kenyans and like them we want recognition”.
One of four lead claimants, Sophocleous spent 26 months imprisoned in the UK –first in Wormwood Scrubs and then Maidstone jail– before being exiled to Rhodes and eventually released when Cyprus won independence in 1960.
The British government’s decision to compensate some 5.228 Kenyan prison camp survivors to the tune of £19,9m in an out-of-court settlement in 2013 set a precedent for those who had suffered in anti-colonial struggles elsewhere.
Cyprus’ waning days as a crown colony was a tumultuous time. Highly classified documents disclosed by the National Archives in 2012 provide ample evidence of brutal treatment of EOKA insurgents including the killing of a blind Greek Cypriot man during the 1955-59 campaign. But atrocities were also conducted by EOKA. Assassination squads regularly murdered British soldiers and in one case shot the wife of a British sergeant.
Lawyers representing the claimants said Tuesday’s hearing before Mr. Justice Kerr resembled the Kenyan case, with the British government resorting to legal roadblocks in the form of technical arguments in the hope the case would be struck out.
Cypriot law has a much stricter statute of limitations. “If the government can persuade Judge Kerr that Cypriot law applies it will open the door to them making further legal arguments that could result in the claims being struck out”, said Howard Shelley, the Birmingham solicitor representing the claimants.