At least 14 Cypriots were tortured then murdered by UK forces during an armed uprising in the late 1950s, according to newly unearthed evidence that raises fresh questions over another shocking chapter of Britain’s colonial history.
Testimony from British veterans and Cypriot rebel fighters, along with postmortem and morgue records, as well as previously undisclosed material from Cypriot archives, suggest that the victims died after being interrogated by UK officers. The dead, all men aged between 17 and 37, were arrested on suspicion of being part of the National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters, a paramilitary organisation known as EOKA, which orchestrated a guerrilla campaign to overthrow British control in Cyprus.
A witness to one of the deaths said: “I saw the soldiers pulling Nicos [Georgiou] out of his cell, almost unconscious, with foam coming out of his mouth. He was making an awful sound like a lion growling as he lay dying. They let him die on the cement outside.”
Although claims that the British military used torture during their occupation of Cyprus have circulated for years, it is the first time that UK forces, including its intelligence services, are accused of a campaign of extrajudicial killings during the 1955 to 1959 uprising.
In 2019, the UK government paid £1m damages to 33 Cypriots who alleged they were tortured by British forces. Among them was a girl, 16 years old at the time, who said she was repeatedly raped by soldiers.
British soldiers on duty in Cyprus in 1955 prepare for the possibility of rioting in a truck bearing the menacing message, ‘Disperse Or We Shoot’. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images
Although the government insisted the payout was not “any admission of liability”, the fresh details will sharpen scrutiny over the true extent of atrocities committed during the campaign to end British colonial rule on the Mediterranean island.
The new claims feature in a book, 14 Crimes of Empire, published in Greek, which investigates the circumstances behind the deaths of the 14 men.
Elina Stamatiou, the Cypriot author who spent three years investigating the deaths, said the UK government needed to acknowledge its role in their fate.
“Justice must be served. I also think that an official apology to the families of these victims would be very important, even if it comes 65 years later. The families’ wounds are still open,” she said.
In what was known as the Cyprus emergency, EOKA launched an insurgency against British authorities who insisted that the island should “never have self-determination”.
In response to the insurrection, Cyprus was flooded with thousands of British soldiers in an ultimately futile attempt to crush the island’s hopes of independence. Some 371 British soldiers died, compared with around 90 EOKA fighters.
Among them was Georgios Christoforou, 18, who was arrested in the city of Paphos in 1958. Fellow detainees witnessed him being escorted into a British interrogation room and emerging with his “face covered with blood and he could not walk”. One recalled “moaning and noises” coming from the room and later heard Christoforou screaming.
Another witness testified that he heard the teenager’s interrogator say: “If you do not tell us the truth, we shall kill you.”
Images of Christoforou in the morgue show his face bloodied and disfigured. Clinical documents show that he died from internal injuries on 22 November “whilst in custody from injuries due to a blow or fall or some other form of violence but there is no evidence to show when, where, how and in what manner he received the injuries which caused his death”.
One of the youngest of the 14 men allegedly killed in detention by the British was 17-year-old Lucas Louka, an EOKA member who died in the city of Famagusta in 1958 after what appears to be a brutal beating from an English military police officer.
Students in Athens burn the British Union Jack during Greek-Cypriot drive for union of Cyprus with Greece. Photograph: Bettmann Archive
Photographs from the morgue indicate signs of baton strikes on his back, with the fatal blow on the left side of his head. A friend of Louka’s said he saw him being “assaulted” by a British military captain. Another saw the teenager attacked “with a heavy rod” by the same officer. The friend added: “He started beating the deceased everywhere, on the head, body. I saw Louka lying on the bed and the captain beating him.”
Veteran EOKA fighter Michalakis Moustakas described how Nicos Georgiou, 37, who was arrested in the village of Platres, died in detention. Held in a cell next to Georgiou, Moustakas said they were forced to sleep naked on cement, were fed urine, repeatedly beaten and dragged by their genitals.
The witness, now 86, said he watched Georgiou being dragged out of his cell with foam coming from his mouth. “Every night when I go to bed, I can still hear his growling sound while dying,” said Moustakas.
Justice must be served. I also think that an official apology to the families of these victims would be very important
Elina Stamatiou, author
British veterans who served in Cyprus have also offered accounts that contradict the UK’s official version. A senior officer wrote an account of the death of EOKA member Spyros Hadjiyiacoumi. The late major Michael Stourton attempted to raise his concerns over the torture of the 27-year-old father of four at a British interrogation centre in the town of Kythrea. His efforts to flag the issue were quashed by Ministry of Defence censors who erased the chapter from the official history of the Grenadier Guards.
Two other EOKA members who were tortured in the same hut as Hadjiyiakoumi but survived told how British interrogators placed a metal bucket on their heads and struck it, and stabbed their feet with a bayonet. The coroner’s report from the time claimed the injuries “were caused during an unsuccessful attempt to escape from lawful custody”.
Another British veteran also offered key evidence into the death of another of the 14 – Andreas Panayiotou, a 31-year-old EOKA member who died in a Platres hotel requisitioned by the British army. Brian Robertson, 85, who served in Platres with the Gordon Highlanders from October 1955 to December 1956, said that a friend called Kevin Taylor, who served in the military medical inspection room, told him that a detainee had died after being tied up in a freezing water fountain all night.
Robertson, from Aberdeen, said the chief doctor was apparently horrified and refused to sign the death certificate, forcing the officers involved to summon another doctor from the Cypriot capital, Nicosia. “They had to get another old army doctor to sign the death certificate. I am certain the British did engage in the use of torture,” Robertson said.
Two of the bodies of the 14 men identified by Stamatiou are still missing and are believed to be secretly buried. British accounts state that both men managed to escape from detention, though neither has been seen since.
One of them – 27-year-old Nicolaos Yiangou – was last seen being driven away in a black Morris minor car after being interrogated by British secret services, police and soldiers.
The British military continues to operate two bases in Cyprus, one close to the city of Limassol and one in Dhekhelia.
The Foreign Office referred its current position to a 2019 statement from then Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan which said that the “passage of time means that it is now no longer possible to establish all of the facts with certainty.” It added:
“The UK government acknowledges the strongly held views of many Cypriots about the emergency” and said that the violence was a “matter of regret.”