For any self-respecting criminal in search of a haven to hide from the police, Cyprus ticks all the boxes: a large British expat community, lots of sun, nice restaurants, and – north of the Green Line – no extradition treaty.
In a sign of the growing importance of the Mediterranean island as a bolt-hole for the criminal classes, details of nine "most-wanted" suspects – wanted in Britain for crimes including rape, multimillion-pound fraud and drug dealing – were circulated yesterday.
The nine are all believed to be living or travelling in the Greek-Cypriot southern part of the divided island, where British authorities are working with their local counterparts to try to trace them. They include Martin Evans, 50, from Swansea, who is wanted for drug dealing, and Paul Lockwood, 41, sought for allegedly raping a girl.
But the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) accepts there is little it can do about organised criminals who do not cross the border and remain in the northern third of the island – unrecognised by Britain – but inhabited by Turkish Cypriots and a growing British community.
The details of the nine were released in a co-ordinated move, called Operation Zygos, in Cyprus at 10am involving local police, Soca and Crimestoppers.
A spokeswoman for Crimestoppers said that the Cypriots were bolstering their presence at the crossing between the two parts of the island to try to prevent any of the suspects from reaching the north after the launch of the operation.
Authorities in the northern part of the island – which is recognised only by Turkey – are not part of the programme, raising questions as to its potential effectiveness. "There's no question that these are not the only nine individuals wanted by UK law enforcement who are in Cyprus," said a Soca spokesman.
The northern part of the island was home to Asil Nadir for 17 years after he fled Britain while facing trial over the collapse of the company he headed, Polly Peck International. He was jailed last month for ten years but only after he voluntarily returned to Britain from Northern Cyprus, fully expecting to be cleared of stealing millions of pounds from his own company.
Detectives also believe that an alleged gangster, Sean Lupton, fled to Northern Cyprus in 2007 with millions of pounds from a £53m cash robbery of a Securitas depot in Tonbridge, Kent. He has not been seen since. His family claim he is probably dead.
The popularity of Cyprus has grown as the "Costa del Crime" in Spain has lost its lustre with the advent of the European Arrest Warrant, which has sped up the extradition process. In 2010-11, 38 of the 133 people surrendered to the UK under the scheme were from Spain and only one was from Cyprus. British police are hoping to build on the success of a similar "most-wanted" scheme – Operation Captura – which it started in Spain in October 2006 and led to 49 out of 65 suspects being arrested.
Soca said earlier this year that Northern Cyprus was emerging as a growing centre for fugitive criminals along with Thailand and South Africa, which all have relatively large English populations. Deputy director of Soca Martin Molloy said: "Fugitives hiding overseas typically remain part of the criminal world, continuing to bring harm to communities locally and beyond. Soca and our partners are determined to ensure life on the run is intolerable for them, and that they are returned to face justice in the UK."
The European Arrest Warrants have been lauded as playing a significant role in dismantling networks of criminals in Spain, but some campaigners have highlighted what they claim are malicious and petty prosecutions under the scheme, which began in 2004.
Catherine Heard, head of policy at Fair Trials International, said: "The European Arrest Warrant was intended to improve cross-border co-operation by streamlining and speeding up the extradition process and it has had some notable successes, but in too many cases the lack of safeguards in this system has led to grave injustice."
Island getaways: Cyprus' top suspects
The nine most wanted believed to be in Cyprus are:
The 56-year-old Cypriot is wanted by West Yorkshire police for dealing drugs.
The 50-year-old from Swansea is wanted for drug dealing, theft and fraud.
Lockwood, 41, is accused of raping a girl between the age of six and 10.
Convicted and jailed for eight years in his absence over a £25m fraud.
A Greek-Cypriot wanted for allegedly raping a woman he met at a nightclub.
A Cypriot, 41, wanted by police in Leicestershire for alleged cocaine dealing.
Convicted for his role in an horrific car accident in which a 22-year-old man died.
Julie Anne Skelding
Accused of covering up for Wayne Smith, her boyfriend, after the car crash.
Martin John Power
The 46-year-old is wanted by Scotland Yard for alleged role in £7m mortgage fraud.