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The blatant abuse of Interpol mechanisms in a staggeringly high number of cases by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey in recent years in order to harass, intimidate and persecute political opponents abroad apparently hit the wall when an investigation by the Interpol Secretariat, launched at the urging of some member states whose citizens were victimized by Turkey, concluded that pure political motivation lay behind the massive number of frivolous filings.
Almost two years later came an admission by the Turkish government on this unprecedented abuse when the Interior Ministry issued an official statement on May 20, 2018 revealing how Interpol had removed cases filed by the Turkish police department’s Interpol office. Using a false flag coup attempt in July 2016 as a pretext to justify mass persecution, the Erdoğan government rushed to file papers with Interpol stating that passports and travel documents for tens of thousands of Turkish nationals had been cancelled. The Turkish government action victimized mainly critics and opponents such as journalists, academics, teachers, judges and others under the pretext of battling terrorism. The number jumped to several hundred thousand within a two-year period.
Alarmed by the flood of requests coming from Turkey that might potentially undermine Interpol mechanisms that were in fact designed to catch real criminals in the spirit of a transnational cooperative framework, Interpol not only removed the cases from its database but also suspended the authorization of the Turkish Interpol section to enter new filings in the system. This was rumored in various reports but was never confirmed until the Turkish Interior Ministry publicly admitted that that was the case in the press statement. Interpol also did not accept the Turkish government’s claims that the Gülen movement, a civic group that has no connection to any violence or terrorism, is a terrorist organization. As a result, all the pending cases that Turkish authorities had managed to enter into the system before the suspension were also rejected.
In other words, just like many countries as well as intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations, the European Union and the Council of Europe, Interpol did not buy into Turkish claims that Gülen movement members, known for establishing excellent science schools and promoting interfaith and intercultural dialogue and community involvement, are terrorists. Most saw what Erdoğan was trying to accomplish by branding his critics and opponents as terrorists on dubious charges and fabricated evidence.
With recent revelations, we now have better insight into the depth and extent of the crackdown by the Erdoğan government and how its relentless witch-hunt against innocent people took a toll on Turkey. On July 9, 2018 the Turkish president announced that the government would lift restrictions on the passports of 181,500 people who have not been the target of any investigation or prosecution but are simply relatives of critics and opponents. In some cases, even ex-wives became the subject of the harsh measures by the government. This was unprecedented in the history of the Turkish Republic. It simply defies logic and common sense to see the Erdoğan government simply preventing nearly 200,000 people from using their passports in an administrative decision because the victims are the spouses, parents or children of people who were detained, arrested or investigated. None of them had any chance to appeal or challenge this unlawful order, and it was nothing but a purely evil act to unjustly punish innocent people because of their family connections to individuals the government considers suspects.
And there’s more. According to data provided by the Turkish Justice Ministry on June 6, 2018 legal action – most in the form of police detention – has been taken against 411,195 people over alleged membership in the Gülen movement since 2016. Considering that the government often cancels the passports of people when they face legal action, without a court ruling in most cases, we have almost 600,000 Turkish nationals who have lost their passport privileges in this witch-hunt. Moreover, the government also cancelled the passports of over 130,000 government employees who were dismissed from their jobs overnight on terror charges without any effective administrative or judicial review. Bearing in mind that some of the names on the government purge list may overlap with those already facing legal action, Turkey may have acted against around 650,000 people in passport cancellations.
Imagine what would have happened if Interpol did not take immediate and urgent measures to prevent Turkey from filing all these cases. For sure, it would have undermined the integrity and credibility of Interpol mechanisms. Even with such measures in place, Turkey has somehow managed to get through Interpol’s filtering systems in some cases such as that of Enes Kanter, an NBA player of Turkish origin who plays for the New York Knicks. On May 19, 2017 he barely escaped arrest while in Jakarta, where he stopped as part of a global goodwill tour. The Indonesian army and secret service raided a school where an event was planned in order to detain him at Turkey’s request, but he managed to leave Indonesia for Romania. On his return trip to the US, Kanter was detained on May 20 at Henri Coandă International Airport in Bucharest because his passport was reported to have been cancelled by the Turkish government. The NBA star was subsequently released after the US government and NBA officials intervened on his behalf. He remains a staunch critic of Erdogan for his rights violations.
In addition to abuse of Interpol’s Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (SLTD) system, the Erdoğan government has also resorted to manipulating the Red Notice mechanism to harass its critics. When their nationals of Turkish origin were detained in Spain in 2017 on what appears to be a fraudulent Red Notice arrest warrant requested by Turkey, the German and Swedish governments immediately reacted and brought these political cases to the attention of the European Union, which later took action by asking Interpol to prevent such abuse. The EU as well as the Council of Europe raised the question of violation of the Interpol Constitution by Turkey through filing cases that do not warrant any criminal action but are rather seen as politically motivated harassment tactics.
Nevertheless, the Turkish government has not given up on Interpol and is still bent on manipulating and abusing its mechanisms. Turkish officials are busy trying to lobby both the General Assembly and the Executive Committee of Interpol and hope to convince them that they have legitimate cases. So far, Interpol does not seem to be impressed by Turkey’s repeated claims. Complicating the case for Interpol, however, is the Turkish government’s sneaky approach of dumping some very serious cases such as drug and sex trafficking or those concerning the Daesh terror network within the larger number of cases that are launched for purely political reasons. It takes a lot of time, energy and resources for Interpol to sort out the data and confirm and vet the information from Turkey. In the meantime, such work adds a new burden on the Interpol staff and deals a real blow to the legitimate fight against crime and terrorism globally.
Frustrated with Interpol mechanisms, Turkey often resorts to bilateral extradition treaties or agreements for mutual cooperation in legal and judicial assistance. So far, only in a few cases has Turkey managed to utilize these agreements in bringing back political opponents as they require long and cumbersome judicial reviews. Even in countries such as Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Malaysia, where there are serious shortcomings and flaws in democratic credentials and the rule of law, the Erdoğan government failed to convince the courts to return Gülen movement members. Western democracies including the United States simply balked at the requests of the Erdogan government that invoked such treaties.
That is why the Turkish intelligence agency started resorting to unlawful abductions in violation of host country laws and in defiance of Turkey’s own commitments under human rights treaties. We have recently seen how such an attempt in Mongolia has blown up in Erdoğan’s face when the Mongolian government, media and civil society successfully mobilized to prevent the kidnapping of a Turkish teacher who has been living there for 24 years.
As a result, Turkey under Erdoğan’s dictatorial rule has become a rogue state that acts as a non-state actor in pursuing regime critics abroad. This more resembles an organized crime syndicate where extrajudicial actions are taken in total disregard of the rule of law with a flagrant abuse of administrative procedure, law enforcement mechanisms and the criminal justice system.
More measures ought to be put in place to prevent Erdoğan from exploiting weaknesses in the global fight against crime and terrorism.