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European Court of Human Rights: Decision Against Turkey in Missing Persons Case Dating to 1974 Conflict with Cyprus

(Oct. 1, 2009) On September 18, 2009, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued its decision in the case of Varnava and Others v. Turkey. The case involved the applications filed in 1990 on behalf of 18 Greek Cypriots, nine of whom disappeared during the July and August 1974 military actions against Cyprus by Turkey. The applicants claimed that eight of the missing had been captured by Turkish military forces. The ninth person, a civilian, was taken for questioning and never returned. His body was found in 2007 by the United Nations Committee on Missing Persons (UNCMP). The Turkish government argued that the men had died during the military operations.

In January 2008, the ECHR issued a chamber judgment holding that Turkey had violated articles 2 (right to life), 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) and 5 (right to liberty and security) of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHRFF). In July 2008, the Turkish government requested that the case be referred to the 17-member Grand Chamber of the ECHR, where it argued that the ECHR lacked jurisdiction to examine the case on three grounds: a) the ECHR had already decided on the issue of missing persons in the fourth inter-state application; b) the facts of the case arose prior to Turkey's acceptance in January 1987 of the right to individual petition to the ECHR; and c) the applicants had missed the six-month deadline for filing a petition. The Court dismissed Turkey's arguments and held that Turkey was obliged to provide an account of the fate of the missing persons, that the obligation was of a continuing nature; and that given the extraordinary situation in northern Cyprus, the applicants had filed the petition within a reasonable time.

The ECHR acknowledged the work of the UNCMP as significant in investigating and informing the families of the whereabouts of their missing relatives. However, pursuant to its case law on member states' responsibilities under article 2 of the ECHRFF, it held that the Turkish government was responsible for failing to fully investigate the fate of the nine men who disappeared under life-threatening circumstances during the 1974 conflict.

With regard to the prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment, the ECHR recalled that it had indeed found in the fourth inter-state application that the relatives of the missing persons had suffered mental anguish and pain due to the unknown fates of their family members. The Court further noted that the suffering was prolonged for a long time due to the ongoing occupation by Turkey of the northern area of Cyprus and the lack of sympathy of the Turkish authorities there.

The ECHR ordered Turkey to pay €12,000 (about US$17,670) within three months to every applicant in respect of non-pecuniary damages and €8,000 for costs and expenses. (Grand Chamber Judgment, Case of Varnava and Others v. Turkey, ECHR website,

(last visited Sept. 25, 2009).)