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Turkey’s confiscation of $50 billion from Gülen members constitutes crimes against humanity: report

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Bünyamin Tekin

A comprehensive report exposes the vast scale of property confiscations in Turkey targeting the Gülen movement, a faith-based group outlawed by Ankara, with an estimated value of $50 billion and affecting over 1.5 million individuals in what the authors call systematic and widespread violations of domestic and international law that amount to “crimes against humanity.”

Ankara accuses the Gülen movement, a faith-based group invested in education and relief work throughout the world and inspired by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, of masterminding a failed coup in July 2016. The movement strongly denies any involvement in it.

The government designated the group as a terrorist organization before the coup and has been confiscating the private property of businesspeople with alleged ties to the movement without due process on unsubstantiated charges.

The report, titled “Persecutory Confiscation Amounting to Crimes Against Humanity: Case of the Gülen Group,” focuses on the extensive scale of property rights violations against the Gülen movement in Turkey and asserts that the Turkish government’s actions against individuals linked to the movement constitute crimes against humanity.

The report was authored by Dr. Yasir Gökçe, a legal scholar and former diplomat; Hakan Kaplankaya, a legal practitioner and former Turkish diplomat with expertise in human rights; Harun Reşit Halisoğlu, a policy officer at the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate with a background in international law; and Mehmet Bozkaya, researcher in international law and a former diplomat.

The report comprises 45 pages and includes an in-depth look into the definition, scope and limitation of property rights, the systematic nature of the violations, and representative cases.

The foreword, written by Prof. Em. Dr. Johan Vande Lanotte, former deputy prime minister of Belgium and reputed professor in international human rights law, emphasizes the significance of property rights at both national and international levels while raising the critical question of whether the violations against the Gülen movement should be viewed as crimes against humanity.

The report then discusses the legal obligations arising from international and domestic law regarding the right to property. It notes that these obligations have been ignored by the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in its crackdown on the Gülen movement.

Erdoğan has been targeting followers of the Gülen movement, inspired by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, since the corruption investigations of December 17-25, 2013, which implicated then-prime minister Erdoğan, his family members and his inner circle.

Dismissing the investigations as a Gülenist coup and conspiracy against his government, Erdoğan designated the movement as a terrorist organization and began to target its members. 

The report discusses the systematic nature of property rights violations against the Gülen movement in Turkey and accuses the Turkish government of misusing anti-terror legislation to appoint trustees to companies owned by individuals associated with the movement, effectively transferring control of private assets to governmental or pro-government entities.

The report argues that these actions constitute crimes against humanity as defined by Article 7/1 of the Rome Statute due to their systematic and widespread nature. It states that the Erdoğan government’s actions against the Gülen movement, including the designation of the group as a terrorist organization without court decisions in 2016 and the dismissal and arrest of thousands of officials, demonstrate a systematic approach to persecute and financially weaken the group.

The report references international jurisprudence on what constitutes systematic crimes, including rulings from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). These rulings define systematic crimes as those committed in accordance with a predetermined plan or policy in an organized and violent manner while underlining the improbability of their accidental occurrence.

The report refers to prep schools operated by the Gülen movement that provided high-quality education to underprivileged people in Turkey.

Many Turkish parents sent their children to prep schools because they feel getting extra educational support is a must given the poor record of education in Turkey’s state-run schools and the fact that students have to compete with millions for entry to quality schools and universities.

In March 2014, the Erdoğan government shut down these prep schools through an amendment to the Law on Private Education Institutions. Despite the Constitutional Court finding this amendment unconstitutional in July 2015, the political climate, especially after the coup attempt, prevented their reopening. Approximately 4,000 such schools were closed, according to the report.

The report also refers to Bank Asya, founded by businesspeople affiliated with the Gülen movement. Starting in 2014, public institutions were prohibited from using the bank, and significant depositors were pressured to withdraw funds. In 2015, the Savings Deposit Insurance Fund (TMSF) seized the bank, citing administrative reasons. The bank was eventually liquidated after the coup attempt.

The authors also refer to the establishment of Criminal Peace Judgeships (CPJ) in 2014 to seize properties of the Gülen movement, which were empowered to decide on searches, asset seizures and appointments of trustees. The CPJs appointed trustees to manage various assets, often without due diligence or regard for legal procedures. This led to widespread confiscation and appropriation of properties, the report states.

The report also delves into how the TMSF was used to manage, restructure or liquidate banks and companies associated with the Gülen movement. The TMSF took over the administration and management of numerous companies and assets, often without transparency or legal safeguards.

The report details how Kaynak Holding, a major conglomerate affiliated with the Gülen movement and the Feza Media Group that included the Zaman daily, Turkey’s most highly circulated newspaper at the time, were seized from their owners through the appointment of trustees.

Following the coup attempt, emergency decrees led to the closure of numerous media outlets, including Zaman, and their assets were transferred to the Treasury. A series of emergency decrees after the coup resulted in the closure of a vast number of Gülen-affiliated institutions, including educational institutions, health centers and media organizations. The assets of these institutions were transferred to the country’s treasury and eventually to individuals or associations close to President Erdoğan.

The Turkish government established a foundation to take over Gülen-affiliated schools operating abroad. Numerous schools in various countries were handed over to the government-run Maarif Foundation. The Turkish government often used political pressure and promises of investment to convince foreign governments to seize these schools.

According to the report, the Erdoğan government targeted not only businesspeople but also ordinary individuals affiliated with the Gülen movement. The actions taken against individuals included dismissal from public service, deprivation of pension entitlements, freezing of bank accounts and travel bans.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) criticized the Turkish judiciary’s approach towards individuals presumed to be members of a terrorist organization based on vague terror laws. Turkey’s actions were registered in the social security records of Gülen-affiliated individuals, deterring employers from hiring them and exacerbating their financial distress, the report said.

The report also mentions legal actions against those who provided financial support to families of detained Gülen group members, labeling such support as aiding terrorism.

Pointing to the nationwide operations resulting in the detention or arrest of hundreds of individuals for allegedly supporting the Gülen movement financially, the report asserts these actions aim to deprive Gülen movement members and their families of basic monetary means for survival.

The report also goes into the Turkish government’s abuse of international mechanisms for combating financial crimes to target Gülen movement members abroad, citing UN Special Rapporteurs, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International’s criticism of Turkey. According to the report asset freezing decisions by Ankara affected numerous Turkish nationals, including businesspeople, journalists and activists, hindering their financial stability even in Western countries.

The report lastly gives four representative examples of the systematic property confiscations targeting the Gülen movement, namely, the cases of Koza-Ipek Holding, Dumankaya Holding, Boydak Holding and Naksan Holding, all major Turkish conglomerates targeted due to alleged links to the Gülen movement.

According to the report, these cases exemplify the Turkish government’s unlawful seizure of property and violation of legal rights of those affiliated with the Gülen movement, as the government’s actions lacked legal basis, were disproportionate, and served private interests rather than public good, with no compensation provided for the significant financial losses incurred.

The conclusion of the report emphasizes that the systematic confiscation and seizure of property by the Turkish government targeting the Gülen movement constitutes a crime against humanity. This practice involves false accusations such as “aiding terrorism” to justify illegal asset seizures.

The report argues that these actions, affecting an estimated 1.5 million individuals and involving around $50 billion in assets, violate international law, including the Rome Statute. It highlights the lack of legality, proportionality, public interest and compensation in these seizures, concluding that such systematic and widespread deprivation of property rights is a flagrant violation of both domestic and international law, demanding legal accountability and international attention.

“The Turkish government initiated a devastating campaign against the Gülen movement in late 2013. Before the coup attempt it began appointing trustees to large companies and media outlets associated with the Gülen movement. Even a major bank was targeted for bankruptcy,” Kaplankaya, one of the authors of the report, told Turkish Minute.

“During the state of emergency, the government implemented numerous measures to dismantle the Gülen movement,” Kaplankaya said, adding that property rights violations are typically given minimal attention by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

“Consequently, the ECtHR refrained from thoroughly examining this issue on its merits. Furthermore, it rejected Akın Ipek’s case, which, in my view, is the court’s most regrettable decision in recent years. In our report, we assert that these infringements on property rights amount to crimes against humanity. We urge the ECtHR to prioritize these cases, halt these violations and address the plight of the victims,” he said.

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