PM's wife accused of meddling after taking Cyprus case

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The Independent Online

High on the thrill of acquisition, James and Leslie Cooke lap up the estate agent's words. "You can't go wrong here. Northern Cyprus is spectacularly beautiful and these are great buys, with swimming pools, running water, the lot," says Gerald Smith, the young "negotiator". "Our motto for these," he gushes as the Cookes tour a complex of villas, "is 'Be the king of your own castle.' Each one is bomb-proof, built with reinforced steel concrete and yours for just £50,000."

But you can go wrong there. Like the Cookes, Linda and David Orams bought into an estate agent's patter. Mesmerised by its magical setting and unbeatable price, they fell in love with and purchased an olive grove in Lapitha five years ago. The two-storey retirement home, replete with pool, bar and stuccoed facade, that they built there was "a dream come true", Mrs Orams said.

Until Meletis Apostolides ambled past her front gate in 2003, five months after Greeks and Turks were allowed to cross the island's UN-patrolled ceasefire line. Then the Orams' dream began to unravel with potential ramifications for up to 10,000 British home owners in the unrecognised state of Northern Cyprus.

Before Cyprus was transformed from a sleepy British colony to a cockpit of ethnic hatred, it was the likes of Lawrence Durrell who migrated to the island. The writer moved into a "large box-like house" in stunning Bellapaix after promising to pay in cash "thick notes, as thick as honeycomb, as thick as salami". Property sales today are easier, as Turkish Cypriots and British-run estate agents rush to sell land abandoned by nearly 200,000 Greek Cypriots when war divided the island in 1974.

Although the Foreign Office has repeatedly warned Britons about the perils of purchasing property in the territory, enthusiasm is such that ever more are buying off-plan and over the internet, joining a motley crew of former MPs and regime apologists who snapped up quaint houses in the 1980s.

"As soon as there was free travel, I went back to see my land," said Mr Apostolides, who had been driven out by the invading Turkish army after a Greek-backed coup. "An English woman was watering the garden and I asked if she was the owner of the villa. When she said 'yes', I said I was the owner of the land but she wasn't very bothered. She smiled and said 'that was all a very long time ago.'" Not long enough for him to forget.

Within months, a Greek Cypriot district court had ordered the Orams to demolish the villa and return the plot with damages to the refugee. When the couple failed to comply, invoking the island's partitioned status, Mr Apostolides exploited Greek Cyprus's EU membership and took his complaint to the High Court in London, hoping, instead, to seize the Orams' family home in Hove.

The High Court ruled last year that the Cypriot court order should be "registered and enforced" in Britain. "This will be a test case for European law," said Mr Apostolides's lawyer, Constantis Condunas. "It will show us whether the EU regulation about registration and enforcement of judgments [within the Union] has substance, or is just idle talk."

Enter European human rights expert Cherie Booth. The leading QC has waded into the dispute, acting for the Orams as their appeal case opened this month.

But not without igniting new fronts of acrimony. With land claims remaining the most explosive issue on the divided island, Greek Cypriots see the involvement of Tony Blair's wife as inexcusable meddling in their domestic politics. For many, she is defending the morally indefensible. Tassos Papadopoulos, the President of the internationally recognised government in Nicosia, has led the protests, publicly berating the barrister for acting "provocatively" at a time when Britain is keen to restart reunification talks.

"This is a question of huge embarrassment for the British Prime Minister," said Kypros Chrysostomides, the President's closest confidant. "Cherie Blair has undertaken to represent Britons who are illegally trespassing, giving the impression the official policy of the British Government is to support illegality. What she is doing is diplomatically very sensitive."