Turkey feared to be turning into surveillance state under Erdoğan rule

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Claims by two opposition political parties of the illegal wiretapping of their phones and the discovery of four bugs at the İstanbul headquarters of another opposition party as well as the Turkish government granting broader authority to the country’s intelligence agency have all raised concerns about the country turning into a surveillance state under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Two Turkish opposition politicians have claimed that their phones are wiretapped and that they are being surveilled. While Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu has denied the allegations, the phone monitoring authorizations granted to Turkey’s state institutions have expanded in recent years.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), and Felicity Party (SP) leader Temel Karamollaoğlu recently claimed their phones were being illegally wiretapped and that they were being monitored.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s name recently came up in connection to alleged plots to assassinate him when pro-government columnists Fuat Uğur and Fuat Bol brought up the claims in their newspapers.

When asked about the allegations, the CHP chairman said he has confidence in his security detail. However, he also claimed his phone conversations are being monitored and that he is under surveillance.

“I know very well that my phones are being tapped,” Kılıçdaroğlu said.

The CHP leader’s allegation was followed by Karamollaoğlu saying that he, too, was sure he was being wiretapped.

“I think our phones and the locations we frequent are being monitored. Yet we are not upset by this since we have nothing to hide. They can listen all they want, it is not a problem for us,” Karamollaoğlu said.

Interior Minister Soylu spoke out against the allegations on social media. In response to the Habertürk newspaper’s Kübra Par, who raised the issue in her column, Soylu slammed the journalist.

“Nobody can be wiretapped unless authorized. It’s a felony,” Soylu tweeted. “You have given in to the designs of the West, which tries to take advantage of the concerns of the public.”

“Admiring the West while looking down on one’s own state…” Soylu went on to say. “I put myself out there, but what about the fabricators of this slander? Wiretapping the main opposition leader is a perversity. Alleging this is a horrible slander!”

In a similar development on Tuesday, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) announced that four listening devices were found in the party building in İstanbul. Deputy parliamentary group chairman Saruhan Oluç displayed the devices at a news conference and said the party would file a criminal complaint.

“We have not been involved in any crime that we’re trying to hide. We don’t have criminal partnerships like you do that we’re covering up,” said Oluç in remarks aimed at the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.

Expansion of wiretapping authority

The allegations raised by the opposition are arguably linked to the vast powers granted to Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) in recent years. The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan first passed legislation making it difficult to prosecute MİT employees. Under the new laws, they can only be tried with Erdoğan’s approval and in a special court set up in Ankara. The 34th Ankara High Criminal Court was established to oversee the trials of MİT staff. No intelligence operative has thus far stood trial before it.

Until 2014 legal wiretapping in Turkey was only possible with a court decision delivered by a panel of three judges. In 2014 new legislation made it possible for a single judge to make the call. In 2016 prosecutors were authorized to directly order the police to carry out phone monitoring if they deemed a situation to be an emergency.

Monitoring room at the presidential palace

The surveillance allegations raised by Kılıçdaroğlu and Karamollaoğlu are linked to a new center set up in Erdoğan’s presidential complex in the capital city.

In September Interior Minister Soylu announced that the government was about to perfect a system connecting all public security cameras across the country to the presidency.

The opposition believes Erdoğan’s government is monitoring their every move.

Turkey wants to purchase spyware to penetrate mobile communications

After the enactment of legislation to facilitate wiretapping, WhatsApp became Turkey’s most popular mobile messaging app. However, several reports have said that Turkey is trying to acquire spyware that would allow it to penetrate WhatsApp communications.

An ongoing investigation in Germany involves allegations that a software company named FinFisher has sold the Turkish government spyware to wiretap the phone conversations of opponents.

In the investigation conducted by Munich prosecutors, the company is charged with unlawfully exporting technical surveillance software and hardware to Turkey. The spyware in question, Finspy, is believed to have been sold to Turkey in 2017 to allow the Turkish government access to the phones of participants in protests against the government’s mass detentions and purges under a post-coup state of emergency declared in the aftermath of an abortive putsch in July 2016.

Reuters reported that through Finspy, it is possible to get hold of the contacts, photos and videos on the phones.

The hacking of Zehra Türkmen’s phone

The first allegation about MİT’s use of Finspy came in February 2020 when a teacher by the name of Zehra Türkmen saw her personal information and photos published on the Internet.

What made Zehra Türkmen significant was her struggle to find her husband Gökhan Türkmen, a former public sector worker sacked by an emergency decree-law who went missing in 2019 for six months. Zehra Türkmen as well as the wives of five other people who disappeared under suspicious circumstances waged an intensive public campaign for months. After six months Gökhan Türkmen turned up in police custody, showing visible signs of torture and ill-treatment. At his first court hearing months later, Türkmen said he had been abducted by MİT and interrogated under torture for four months in an unknown location.

Zehra Türkmen’s campaign made her a target. The educational institution where she worked was repeatedly audited by inspectors and fined. She lost her job as a result of the pressure. Her phone was hacked, her personal photos were published and her social media passwords stolen.

After the incident, two journalists critical of the government also had their phones hacked, and their social media accounts published pro-Erdoğan posts.

Turkey is one of the biggest clients of the Pegasus spyware

A report released in 2018 by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto found that Turkey was one of the biggest clients of spyware named Pegasus, developed by the Israeli-based NSO Group.

The state clients of the company can access all the information on a phone on which they use the spyware, including passwords, contact lists, calendars, messages and calls made through messaging apps. The spyware also allows the remote use of the phones’ cameras and microphones. It can be used on both iPhones and phones with an Android operating system.

Citizen Lab had previously revealed that the spyware was used to tap Ahmed Mansoor, an Emirati human rights activist. The phone of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who was murdered at the Saudi Consulate General in İstanbul, was also surveilled through Pegasus spyware.

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