Will INTERPOL offer Erdoğan a lifeline?

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Cevheri Güven

Murat Acar, a professor of radiology, was one of tens of thousands of Turkish citizens whose passports were cancelled by the government after a failed military coup in July 2016. He had previously received an invitation from Bahrain’s King Hamad University in December 2015 and had moved to the Gulf country to work. A few days after the failed putsch in Turkey, his passport as well as those of his family members were cancelled in a mass cancellation campaign led by the Interior Ministry as part of post-coup state of emergency measures, beginning with some 50,000 people and to ultimately reach 250,000. The Turkish police communicated this to INTERPOL’s systems.

In August 2016, at the initiative of Hatun Demirer, the Turkish ambassador to Bahrain, the Bahraini police confiscated the passports of the Acar family, who then lodged an asylum application with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees out of fear that they might be the subject of an extradition to Turkey and a politically motivated arrest. On Oct. 7, 2016 the Bahraini police raided their home, forcibly took them to the airport and handed them over to a police team from Turkey. The family was rendered to Turkey and kept at a police station close to Atatürk Airport from Oct. 8 to 12. Yet no entry about them was made in the official police records, and they were officially “at large” during that time. Acar and his wife were later brought to the Ankara Police Department, where they spent 18 days undergoing repeated unofficial interrogations full of verbal insults and threats, without their lawyers. They were held at a gym located in the police department’s garden, handcuffed, together with hundreds of people who were tortured. During that time, Acar encountered Nuri Akpınar, a professor who was also rendered from Bahrain and who showed signs of torture on his body. It has been widely documented that the department in Ankara was a torture center after the coup. Arrested by a court, Acar remained behind bars for 30 months.

The team that rendered Akpınar to Turkey was a group of officers with the Turkish INTERPOL. According to Acar and Akpınar’s case file, these officers were officially tasked with going to Bahrain and bringing back the people handed over by the local authorities. Yet the file contains no documents pointing to an official extradition procedure. That’s why Acar describes the incident as an abduction.

Because INTERPOL police was involved in his rendition, Acar wrote a letter from prison to the organization’s headquarters in Lyon, France, asking whether they were aware of what had happened. In response, the organization said its databases showed no entry made by Turkish or Bahraini authorities about him. In his court statement Acar described the incident as “an abduction in which INTERPOL police were involved, unbeknownst to INTERPOL itself.”

After several cases similar to Acar’s, INTERPOL stopped accepting passport cancellation notices from Turkey on the grounds that they were politically motivated. Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu’s harsh reaction was not enough to change the organization’s stance.

While the Turkish government has failed to obtain a positive outcome from its enterprises with INTERPOL, it does perceive opportunities at the upcoming 89th INTERPOL General Assembly, scheduled to be held in İstanbul Nov.21-25. While many countries have been refraining from hosting international events due to COVID-19, Turkey was willing to host the meeting.

The event will be attended by the INTERPOL representatives of 194 member states. Each country has one vote at the meeting.

The Turkish government has been conducting an intensive lobbying campaign to alter INTERPOL’s policies concerning its passport cancellations. All participants have been invited along with their family members, and the Turkish government will cover all their expenses.

In addition to passport cancellations, Turkey also sent thousands of Red Notice requests after the coup, mostly for alleged members of the Gülen movement, which the Turkish government accuses of orchestrating the abortive putsch. These requests were rejected by INTERPOL on the grounds that they were political. Article 3 of the organization’s constitution prohibits INTERPOL’s involvement in crimes with a military, political, religious or racial dimension. While the Turkish side insists that their requests concern terrorism, sending several delegations to Lyon, it has thus far not been able to convince its interlocutors.

In 2017 Turkey changed strategy and started to flag its dissidents’ passports as lost or stolen on INTERPOL’s relevant database as a backdoor method to cancel the passports. After a wave of complaints, INTERPOL established that Ankara was in violation of regulations and restricted Turkey’s access to the system. One of the Turkish government’s aims at the İstanbul meeting will be the lifting of these measures.

Highlighting the importance attached to the upcoming event, Deputy Foreign Minister Yavuz Selim Kıran said at a parliamentary meeting in June that INTERPOL was failing to honor its obligations in fighting terrorism.

“In our cooperation with INTERPOL, we are facing problems such as the rejection of Red Notice … requests, the deletion of existing Red Notices and the blocking of Turkey’s access to the Stolen and Lost Travel Document Database. By hosting this meeting, we will explain our anti-terror policies, particularly concerning FETÖ,” Kıran said, using the Turkish government’s derogatory term to refer to the Gülen movement. “From this perspective, the event will be a significant opportunity.”

Lütfi Çiçek, the chair of Turkey’s national INTERPOL bureau, announced that the delegates were expected with their family members and that they were preparing “social programs that include many activities.”

Oğuzhan Albayrak, a former Turkish diplomat and the director of the German-based Human Rights Defenders, considers the possible outcomes of Turkey’s efforts to convince INTERPOL.

“The Turkish government attaches great importance to the meeting. Rather than a general assembly, they have prepared an impressive holiday program for the INTERPOL members, that is why families were included,” Albayrak says.
“Turkey will seek the removal of restrictions on its Red Notice requests, passport cancellations and lost and stolen passport entries. Turkey has thus far abducted more than 100 Gülen movement members, mostly in countries with lower democratic standards, and forcibly rendered them to Turkey. If Erdoğan’s requests are approved in the general assembly, hundreds will be added to this. His critics are currently stuck in many countries around the world, and they are unable to return out of fear of getting arrested. Taking their passports away will only mean cooperation with the regime and destruction of the democratic values that INTERPOL represents.”

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