By Helena Smith
A high court judge has opened the way for 34 Greek-Cypriots to seek damages from Britain, following claims of torture and human rights abuses at the hands of colonial forces during the island’s struggle for independence in the 1950s.
Passing judgment at the Royal Courts of Justice, Mr Justice Kerr dismissed the British government’s argument that Cypriot law applied in the case, meaning the statute of limitations would kick in.
“It seems to me that, in this case at any rate, where a state stands to be held to account for acts of violence against its citizens, it should be held to account in its own courts, by its own law and should not escape liability by reference to a colonial law it has itself made,” he said.
Lawyers representing former members of EOKA, the Greek-Cypriot guerrilla organization that fought to end British rule in Cyprus, described the verdict as a significant victory.
“It is an extremely important day because this case can, and will, now go full steam to a trial,” said Howard Shelley, representing the group. “The claimants will have their day in court.”
Under Cypriot law, the alleged crimes would have fallen outside the scope of a statute of limitations, which is much stricter than that in English law. The UK government had raised the legal roadblock – an obscure piece of international private law known as “double actionability” – at a preliminary hearing before Justice Kerr last November in the hope the case would be struck out.
“This is a significant victory for the claimants…who have been fighting for recognition of the torture and human rights abuses committed against them nearly 60 years ago,” said Kevin Conroy, the group’s chief solicitor. “I have no doubt in my mind that the British government brought this preliminary issue up as a deliberate attempt to frustrate the claimants from receiving justice. Many of them still suffer from the physical and psychological injuries inflicted on them at the time.”
The judgment was met with jubilation by the EOKA veterans, who turned up at the courts with walking sticks and on the arms of younger relatives. Most were juveniles at the time of the 1955-59 insurgency and now mainly in their eighties.
“I feel very strong today, very strongly that after all these years justice finally may come,” Christos Sokratous told the Guardian outside the courts. “There aren’t many more years left. I am 79. For a whole month, they beat me, kicked me, slapped me and hurt me and I only hope they don’t find another argument not to do what is right,” he claimed. “The English are cunning. They are as cunning as wolves.”
The plaintiffs, who include two women, filed the class action suit in 2015, two years after the then foreign secretary, William Hague, expressed “sincere regret” for indignities suffered by elderly Kenyans during the Mau Mau revolt against colonial rule in the 1950s and 1960s.
In an attempt at redress, the British government paid out nearly £20m in costs and compensation to more than 5,000 victims who had suffered torture and abuse.
In this case, the Greek-Cypriot group say International Red Cross archives containing eyewitness accounts from officials then working for the organisation provide evidence of their claims.
In 2012, the Foreign Office released highly classified documents that shed further light on the Cyprus insurgency, including admissions by colonial-era officers of torture and abuse. In the reports, British soldiers and security services were accused of killing a blind man, telling another Greek-Cypriot to dig his own grave and punching a pregnant woman who then miscarried. In one incident in 1958, colonial forces rounded up 300 civilians before beating them and leaving some for dead.
One of the women, known as XY, 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, then campaigning for union with Greece and considered a terrorist organisation by the British government.
Sokratous and other EOKA veterans claim say they were tortured while in custody. “I was 18 at the time,” he recalled. “They kept me in a cell for a week and then they passed me to special branch where it wasn’t soldiers but men in civilian clothes who did the beating. I heard that the English supervisor, the man in charge, died a few years ago. I wanted very much to meet him.”
Cyprus’ waning days as a crown colony was a tumultuous time. EOKA, though vastly outmanned, was also brutal. Assassination squads headed by the militants regularly killed British soldiers, conducted ambushes and in one case shot the wife of a British sergeant, prompting the London media at the time to dub Ledra street, the main shopping strip in Nicosia, the island’s capital, “murder mile”.
Lawyers have not ruled out an out-of-court settlement given Britain’s “need for friends in Europe” in the aftermath of Brexit. “The more the risk of litigation, the more attractive a settlement looks,” said Shelley. “Making an enemy of the Cyprus government by forcing a lot of elderly Cypriots to go to court and relive such trauma might not be the best route to follow at a time when we need as many friends as we can get in Europe.”