[OPINION] Erdoğan’s hatred of Yazidis takes a toll in Turkey

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Yazidis refugees carry their belongings on January 3, 2017 in Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey as they change their refugee camp and move to Midyat, further south. The population of Yazidis reaches 700,000, the majority residing in northern Iraq where persecution from Islamic State jihadists led to as many as 40,000 Yazidis fleeing their ancestral homes to the Sinjar Mountains in northwestern Iraq, where they were trapped without food or water. / AFP PHOTO / ILYAS AKENGIN

By Abdullah Bozkurt

The deep hostility harbored by Turkey’s Islamist rulers against non-Muslims has reached a point of blind hatred that often rears its ugly head in the official narrative adopted by the fanatic president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his overzealous religious brethren in the government. The case of the Yazidi religious minority presents a perfect example of how this poisonous rhetoric has had far-reaching implications on the ground which contributed to further persecution of this vulnerable group at the hands of thugs who acted with impunity.

Abdullah Bozkurt
Abdullah Bozkurt

On Oct.16, 2016, addressing thousands of die-hard fans in his hometown of Rize on the eastern Black Sea coastline, Erdoğan erupted with anger towards Iraq’s Yazidis (Ezidi), accusing them of conspiring with the terrorist enemies of Turkey and being involved in wrong moves. With a condescending attitude, he said Turkey had opened its doors to Yazidis who were fleeing the killing campaign of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). He wrongfully claimed that Yazidis are Christians, adding that Turkey, a predominantly Muslim nation, accepted them nonetheless. This was not the first time Erdoğan had targeted the Yazidi minority but certainly was the most vicious one on record.

This mindset, deeply rooted in the Turkish political Islamists, takes a toll on state institutions, predisposing government employees against Yazidis. A botched criminal case against alleged traffickers of Yazidi women and children in Turkey’s southeastern province of Gaziantep, a hotbed of ISIL’s Turkish network, is a perfect case study showing how the judiciary, effectively controlled by Islamists in the government, takes its cues from political signals.

The use of ISIL liaison offices for the Yazidi slave trade in Gaziantep was first brought to public attention by Germany’s regional public service broadcaster ARD in a major investigative piece. The secret camera recording documented how ISIL fund managers in an unregistered currency exchange house received cash in exchange for selling Yazidi woman and children to an intermediary. After the investigative piece was aired, the Gaziantep Bar Association and an NGO called the Progressive Women’s Association filed a criminal complaint with the public prosecutor’s office, asking authorities to investigate the claims.

Police raided the currency exchange house operated by the al-Amir Company, located on the third floor of a commercial building on Muammer Aksoy Boulevard in the İncilipınar neighborhood of the ŞehitKamil district in Gaziantep. Six suspects, identified as Manhal Dabbas (30), Mohamed Dabagh (55), Omer Dabagh (25), Yahya Faham (37), Hecham Hadad (49) and Yusuf Kurdi (48), were detained in the raids. All suspects are Syrian nationals, with Kurdi having Turkish citizenship as well. Police found passports, cash in the amount of $371,711 and receipts for money transfers in Arabic made on behalf of the al-Amir Company. Police investigators confirmed ARD’s story and found nothing to substantiate claims by suspects that money was exchanged for legitimate trade with Iraq and Syria. No record of any trade transaction was discovered in the business office that was operating unregistered. The evidence showed money was transferred to associates in Manbij in Syria when the area was still under ISIL control.

On Dec. 23, 2015, the suspects were charged and indicted on charges of membership in the ISIL terror group and violating financing of terror laws, which require up to 10 years of jail time for each violation in the event of conviction. The indictment was submitted to the 2nd High Criminal Court in Gaziantep. At record speed, the court, presided over by a panel of three judges — Lutfi Türk, Elif Sülün and Mehmet Nur Ergül — held the first hearing in the case on Dec. 31, 2015. All three suspects were present at the hearing. The second and final hearing in the case was held on Jan.15, 2016 during which the new prosecutor, Ömer Tuncay İpek, surprisingly asked the court to acquit all the suspects, citing a lack of evidence. Judge Sülün, who was on the bench for the first hearing, was replaced by another judge, Büşra Kuru. The public prosecutor’s motion to move for acquittal came as a shock in light of the serious charges leveled in the indictment. All three judges on the panel agreed with the prosecutor and decided to acquit all suspects, return the confiscated money and equipment and bill the government for all court-related expenses.

The court cleared the suspects within two weeks, record speed for the notoriously slow-moving judiciary in Turkey. The case left many questions unanswered. For one, the court did not even bother notifying the original plaintiffs in the case, which included an NGO and a bar association. It did not wait for the Turkish translation of the seized 1,768 money receipts in Arabic so that they could be properly examined. The official translations of the receipts arrived at the court on Jan. 25, 10 days after the court acquitted the suspects.

The Treasury, which is required by law to be notified of any cash seized in a police raid, was not informed by the prosecutor or the court. The court did not file a complaint against the currency exchange house, which was found to be operating illegally. Neither the prosecutors nor the judges have sought to identify the senders and receivers of the large amount of money exchanged, or for what purpose. The case looked to be a hush-up operation by the government. By law, the court should have written a reasoned decision within two weeks of the acquittal, yet that was only delivered on April 8, 2016.

Opposition lawmaker Mahmut Toğrul from Gaziantep province filed a motion in Parliament on May 13, 2016, asking Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ for an explanation of all these bizarre happenings in the case. By law, the government should have provided a response to the eight questions asked by the opposition. Yet the justice minister took his time and responded on Sept. 6, 2016. Citing judicial independence, Justice Minister Bozdağ did not answer any of the eight questions posed by Toğrul about the case of Yazidi women and children sold via a Turkish province. Adding insult to injury, Bozdağ said the Justice Ministry had no knowledge of the case at all and did not know what happened with it.

Perhaps this case represented a smoking gun on how the Turkish government facilitated the transfer of funds to ISIL, al-Qaeda and other radical jihadists fighting in Syria, and turned a blind eye to the trafficking of Yazidis. If those money receipts had been investigated, we would have known who was involved in these transfers. For example, one seized receipt showed a one-time illegal money transfer in the amount of $500,000 between Turkey and Syria.

The investigation, launched after the exposé, was thwarted in the trial phase by the invisible hand of Erdoğan and his company of Islamists, who were terrified of liability if those allegations were to be proven in a court of law. That is why so many ISIL cases in Turkey ended up releasing militants under the protection of the political authorities. Erdoğan has high stakes riding in the terror game, and that is the reason he personally intervened in securing the release of arms-laden trucks bound for Syrian radical groups in January 2014. All the police and military investigators as well as prosecutors who intercepted his illegal arms shipments to Syria at that time were later punished and arrested under the orders by Erdoğan. The Yazidis were simply collateral damage, and Erdoğan, who did not hide his dislike of the Yazidis, did not care about them at all.

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