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A TURKISH CYPRIOT lawyer until recently employed by the UNHCR to provide humanitarian relief to legitimate asylum seekers in the north has admitted conspiring to smuggle asylum seekers into the south in return for cash.

His arrest by Turkish Cypriot police came on Thursday after eight Iraqis, five of them minors, were apprehended by British SBA police officers as they tried to cross from the north to the south on February 6.

The disgraced lawyer, Kivanc Aktug, ran the Human Relief Mission (HRM), an NGO in the north used by the UNHCR to provide assistance to refuges deemed by the UNHCR as legitimate asylum seekers. Kivanc’s job was to provide shelter and other forms of humanitarian care for asylum seekers pending their acceptance by host countries oversees.

Spokesperson for the UNHCR in Cyprus Emilia Strovolidou told the Sunday Mail yesterday that her organization had cut links with Aktug after the HRM had closed down at the end of last year.

“We used to cooperate with him, but we had no idea about this,” she said.

According to evidence given in a Famagusta court on Friday, Aktug and four other accomplices’ smuggling operations were foiled when British Police in the Dhekelia SBA apprehended the eight Iraqi asylum seekers. The statements given by the Iraqis to the SBA police were then passed on to the Turkish Cypriot police, who carried out a search of Aktug’s home. There they found $28,950, €6,983 and a smaller amount of Turkish lira, along with 27 passports belonging to Iraqi asylum seekers supposed to have been in his care until the end of 2008.

In court, the police sergeant carrying out the investigation said he believed Aktug, and the taxi driver arrested with him, were working as part of an organized ring of human smugglers. Aktug was charged with abuse of his position and for aiding people to cross the north’s borders illegally. Three other suspects denied involvement but were also charged with conspiracy to smuggle people.

Ironically, Aktug, who used to handle between 500 and 600 asylum plea cases per year, spoke to the Cyprus Mail in January 2008 on how he was overseeing the release from jail of an Iraqi family of eight after they had been arrested by Turkish Cypriot police for entering the island illegally. The family were released, while evidence they gave in court helped lead to the arrest of a number of policemen believed to be part of a human trafficking ring.

Yesterday, Hasan Ercakica, spokesman for the Turkish Cypriot leadership issued a statement saying Aktug had not been an employee of the north’s authorities but of the UNHCR, and that therefore his arrest should not reflect negatively on the north. The spokesman added that the north was doing all it could to prevent human smuggling across its territory but that its ability to do so effectively was hampered by the Greek Cypriot police’s refusal to cooperate with the Turkish Cypriot police. He confirmed however that the British SBA police had been willing to cooperate, and that the cooperation had led to Aktug and the other suspects’ arrests.

According to human rights lawyers in the north, punishment for human trafficking and smuggling offences remain relatively lenient. One lawyer told the Mail, “There are no actual laws for human trafficking or smuggling. They can only be charged with helping people enter or leave the north illegally”. The lawyer added that a policeman had recently been sentenced to four years in prison for such an offense.

Draft laws specifically relating to human smuggling and trafficking are however in the pipeline and awaiting the approval of the authorities, according to the lawyer.

By Simon Bahceli, Cyprus Mail, February 15, 2009|||Lawyer held in the north for people smuggling
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