One less crime hot spot

Observations on Northern Cyprus

Is it all over for Britain's criminal fugitives in Northern Cyprus? For the fraternity of conmen, hitmen and other assorted villains who have long enjoyed the perks of the pariah state, the short answer is: yes. Twenty-five years after unilaterally proclaiming independence, the breakaway republic - recognised solely by Turkey - has declared a burning ambition to clean up its act.

Politics, poverty and a realisation of the perils inherent in hosting men on-the-run have, it would seem, conspired to end the entity's allure as a Costa del Crime. British criminals, say Turkish Cypriot officials, should think twice about moving to the enclave because they are definitely no longer welcome.

"We do not want to have any person here who has committed a crime," Ferdi Sabit Soyer, the mini-state's self-styled prime minister tells me over coffee and cigarettes. "If the UK authorities give us information that someone like that is here, then we will arrest him and put him on a plane to Heathrow."

With the island's estranged Greek and Turkish communities embarking this month on what is widely seen as the most serious push ever to reunite Europe's last divided country, Cyprus, he says, is now thinking peace. And tolerance for the men who have exploited the casino-rich territory's opaque legal status has finally run out.

"What has happened in the past has been very damaging to us. Believe me, if we could, we would have an extradition treaty with the UK tomorrow," says Turgay Avci, the statelet's otherwise uncompromising self-styled foreign minister.

The British Foreign Office estimates that at least 15 fugitives, exploiting the absence of an extradition treaty with the UK, are ensconced there. Asil Nadir, the disgraced Polly Peck tycoon and former conservative party donor, wanted in Britain on 66 charges of theft, was among the first to arrive. His spectacular landing, in disguise, in 1993, and subsequent embrace by the then Turkish Cypriot president Rauf Denktash, inspired others to follow suit.

Not long after, Brian Wright, the mastermind of a drugs empire that stretched from Australia to America, relocated to the statelet. He was joined by the notorious gangster Kenneth Noye, the suspected drugs baron-cum-bail jumper Gary Robb, and the late Stanley Rankin who boasted he was among the UK's "three most wanted men" before being shot dead by a fellow expat in 2003. Rankin said he loved Northern Cyprus because it offered "so many cigarette-smuggling and money-laundering opportunities".

Meanwhile, fearing negotiations were underway to give him up, Noye was forced to flee the republic. Wright - nicknamed "the Milkman" because he always delivered - escaped in a fishing boat in 2005, when the going got tough, before his arrest in Spain. Nadir however, a Turkish Cypriot and media mogul to boot, has proved harder for the British authorities - who cannot formally "talk" to the breakaway government - to dislodge.

In a Foreign Office blunder, Robb managed not only to have his British passport renewed - despite having an arrest warrant out for him - but has remained in the republic, working in construction. Local authorities will "put up with him" until a property development involving 500 Britons is completed. "Our priority is to have these homes finished first, because the image of our country is at stake, and then we will see how we deal with him," Soyer said.

Such sensitivity has not been shown to others. Peter Roberts (aka Maggot Pete), wanted in connection with the UK's biggest meat scam, was deported in 2007. And over the past year, Turkish Cypriots, acting on tip-offs from British intelligence, have handed over other fugitives to the UK.

Last November, police bundled Miran Thakrar, who had been linked to the murders of three men in Bishop's Stortford two months previously, on to a Heathrow-bound plane. His deportation followed the arrest of Kemal Kemalzade, a Turkish Cypriot also wanted for murder in the UK who had similarly fled to the safe haven.

"We couldn't extradite him to the UK because he is a local citizen [but] by co-operating closely with British police and having evidence and witnesses brought here, we tried him and now he is serving a 10-year sentence in our prison," said Avci, the foreign minister.

The breakaway government has also passed tough anti-money laundering laws in an effort to rid the republic of organised crime. The legislation followed rumours that spoils from Britain's biggest heist - the robbery of the Securitas depot at Tonbridge in Kent in 2006 - had ended up in local coffers.

More clean-up action can be expected as the bi-communal reunification talks gather pace. International isolation has come at a price: unlike Greek Cypriots who have enjoyed the benefits of EU membership since 2004, the enclave's economy is in meltdown. If rejoining the world community means improving their image, the Turkish Cypriots are prepared to do it - and to sacrifice a few choice criminals along the way.