x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Cyprus torture victim still seeking UK apology

Thassos Sophocleous is preparing to sue the British government - 'not for the money', but for Britain to acknowledge the dark side of its imperial past.

Men of the Royal Berkshire regiment stand guard at a barbed wire barricade in Ledra Street, Nicosia, where Cypriot civilians are gathered for questioning following the shooting of a British serviceman on September 1, 1958.
Men of the Royal Berkshire regiment stand guard at a barbed wire barricade in Ledra Street, Nicosia, where Cypriot civilians are gathered for questioning following the shooting of a British serviceman on September 1, 1958.

NICOSIA // More than half a century after hesays he was tortured by the British colonial authorities in Cyprus, a retired mathematics teacher, nudging 80, hopes to wrench an apology from London.

Thassos Sophocleous is preparing to sue the British government - "not for the money", but for Britain to acknowledge the dark side of its imperial past.

"Instead of giving us our freedom, they tortured and killed us," he said, his eyes flashing behind gold-rimmed spectacles.

Mr Sophocleous, a genial pensioner, heads the association of veterans from Eoka, the Greek Cypriot guerrilla movement that fought a violent campaign between 1955 and 1959 to shake off British rule and unite Cyprus with Greece.

Britain valued the island as a vital regional foothold, especially after its ignominious loss of the Suez Canal zone in 1956 - and still has two "sovereign" military bases on Cyprus.

The Eoka veterans association says that 14 Greek Cypriots died under British interrogation. Two were just 17. The oldest was a 36-year-old father of six. Nine young Greek Cypriots were also hanged during what London called the "Cyprus Emergency".

Mr Sophocleous now wants "the satisfaction of presenting to the international community what the British did to us".

His fellow Eoka veterans share that wish, as do most Greek Cypriots. Every elementary schoolchild is well-versed in stories of British army brutality in the 1950s. But - until now - bringing Britain to book seemed an unrealistic prospect.

Mr Sophocleous was encouraged to act by the landmark case of three elderly Kenyans who were tortured during the anti-colonial Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s.

This month, after a three-year legal battle, the trio won a high court ruling in London giving them the right to sue the British government for damages.

In a historic judgement, Britain's high court on October 5 rejected the government's argument that there was insufficient evidence and too few surviving witnesses for a fair trial.

Judge Richard McCombe said last year's discovery of "voluminous" colonial-era files, lodged in a secret foreign office archive, meant that there was enough potential evidence for legal action to proceed.

Britain's colonial officials, he observed wryly, "seem to have been meticulous record-keepers".

Thousands of Kenyans were killed in the revolt and about 70,000 detained as suspected rebels, among them the grandfather of US president, Barack Obama.

The British foreign office does not dispute that the three Kenyans - who want compensation and an apology — were tortured, but is appealing because of the ruling's implications.

Britain fears a torrent of litigation relating to alleged crimes committed during the twilight of its empire.

Martyn Day, the British lawyer for the Kenyans, did nothing to ease those concerns.

"There will undoubtedly be victims of colonial torture from Malaya to Yemen, from Cyprus to Palestine who will be reading this judgement with great care," he said.

From Cyprus alone "hundreds" could take legal action, Mr Sophocleous said in his busy Nicosia office that overlooks towering eucalyptus trees

Mr Sophocleous's association has retained lawyers in Cyprus and Britain to pursue claims for personal injury against the British government.

"We have a lot of evidence, a lot of testimony. It's going very well," he said.

A month after the Eoka uprising began on April 1, 1955, Mr Sophocleous dropped out of his final year of a maths degree at Athens University to return home and fight.

At 24, he was leading a contingent of Eoka guerrillas in the Pentadactylos Mountains north of Nicosia when he was arrested by British forces in October 1956.

Over the following 16 days he said he was flayed on his back with a rope embedded with shards of iron and kicked in the head, body and testicles.

Today, he still suffers health problems: he is hard of hearing in his left ear, suffers pains in both knees - "which were hit continually for 36 hours" - and has back pains.

Allegations of torture and abuse were given wide coverage in the British and international media at the time but the British administration in Cyprus brushed off all such claims as Eoka propaganda.

Those charges, however, will be harder to dismiss following the recent discovery of about 9,000 files from 37 former British administrations. Long thought to have been destroyed, the "lost" files came to light in connection with the Kenyan case.

Declassified documents from Cyprus contain accounts by British police and military officers themselves of brutal mistreatment they saw meted out to suspected Eoka fighters and civilians.

No British soldier or policeman was prosecuted for torture during the Eoka uprising, although two officers of the Gordon Highlanders regiment were court-martialled and found guilty of causing actual bodily harm.

The names of most British interrogators are common knowledge to Eoka veterans.

Mr Sophocleous said he could "point out the one" who interrogated him.

He names the man, a fluent Greek speaker who would be aged between 80 and 90 if he is still alive.

The man never laid a finger on him, leaving the abuse to pairs of British military police.

Mr Sophocleous does not blame most of these, accepting they were "carrying out orders", although some "were very cruel and sadistic and enjoyed what they were doing".

He attributes his deliverance to an individual act of kindness. When he urinated blood after a particularly severe beating, his interrogators panicked and called in an army doctor from Aberdeen.

The medic vouched to protect him from any further abuse.

"He saved my life," Mr Sophocleous said.

He was sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of arms and ammunition possession. He spent 26 months in prisons in Britain.

Mr Sophocleous was released, along with all other Eoka fighters in 1960, when Cyprus won independence.

"I'd been sentenced to life in prison and then one day I learned I'd go free. It was amazing," Mr Sophocleous said.

"Of course, I was very happy." He went on to live a normal life and achieved his ambitions - teaching mathematics and astronomy to high school students.

But he was also "depressed" - because Eoka had been fighting for union with Greece, not independence. Nor was it a clear-cut independence. The treaties establishing the new state were drafted by Greece and Turkey, with minimal input from Cyprus.

Moreover, Britain, which Cypriots accuse of pursuing a "divide and rule" policy in the 1950s, retained 256 square kilometres of the island as sovereign military bases. Like most Cypriots, Mr Sophocleous has ambivalent feelings about Britain - home to a large Cypriot community — where he has two uncles, several cousins and British friends whom he first met behind bars in Wormwood Scrubs prison more than half a century ago.

"I don't have hard feelings about the British people or British soldiers, but I have hard feelings about those who were in charge in the 1950s."

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae