North Africa, West Asia: Feature

Turkish spies are abducting Erdogan’s political opponents abroad

Emboldened by a lack of repercussions from NATO and the EU, President Erdogan’s regime is kidnapping dissidents

Serdar San
16 June 2021, 7.25am
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg greets Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the NATO summit in Brussels, 14 June 2021
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Abaca Press / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

On 1 June, Orhan Inandi, a Turkish-Kyrgyz national was declared missing in the Kyrgyzstan capital, Bishkek. His car had been found early that morning, with its doors wide open and with valuables left inside. Many suspect he was kidnapped by the Turkish security services.

Inandi is the founder of a network of schools in Kyrgyzstan linked to the Gülen movement, which Turkish President Erdogan accuses of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Inandi’s spouse has claimed to have information that her husband is being held in the Turkish embassy in Bishkek for rendition to Turkey.

This case is just the latest example of Turkey’s global campaign of abductions targeting its perceived enemies. Since the 2016 failed coup, which nearly saw Erdogan removed from power, he has lashed out against political opponents in Turkey. In one of the most sweeping purges of perceived dissidents in modern political history, thousands of military and police officers, judges, prosecutors, teachers, scholars and others have been fired or arrested, along with the discretionary use of anti-terror laws to prosecute any act of opposition as a crime against the state.

Accompanying these domestic repression strategies to contain challenges to the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) power, though, is the use of extraterritorial forms of coercion – abductions and renditions of dissidents outside Turkey’s borders.

Nothing new

This isn’t the first time in Turkey’s history that a government has resorted to kidnappings of political opponents. From 1990 to 1999, when the conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish insurgency was at its peak, state-sponsored abductions targeted actual and perceived supporters of the Kurdish movement inside Turkey, including Kurdish lawyers, politicians, activists, journalists, and doctors.

Since the attempted coup in July 2016, 16 domestic abduction cases have been reported – mostly individuals accused of being followers of Fethullah Gülen, but also some suspected Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) supporters.

These kidnapping operations are no longer limited to within Turkey’s borders. Since 2016, 107 individuals, most of them accused of being Gulenists, have been brought back to Turkey from at least 16 countries, such as Azerbaijan, Gabon, Kosovo, Malaysia, Moldova, Myanmar, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

In several cases, these forcible returns of Turkish nationals were carried out through extra-legal means – covert intelligence operations with the “direct participation, support, or acquiescence of the host states where these people were residing” – rather than through formal judicial proceedings.

For example, six Turkish nationals suspected of being affiliated with Gulenists who possessed work and residence permits in Kosovo were detained by the Kosovo security services in collaboration with Turkish spy agency MIT(Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı) and turned over to Turkey via a private jet in March 2018.

A weak international response and a lack of accountability for acts of transnational repression have allowed authoritarian leaders around the world to continue pursuing their opponents overseas with impunity

A Kosovo parliamentary investigation commission found that the arrest and deportations were in direct violation of guarantees offered by domestic and international law, resulting in the dismissal of the Kosovo interior minister and intelligence chief.

Several of these cases of extra-territorial abductions have resulted in forcible disappearances – victims were tortured and disappeared after their return to Turkey. This was the case with Zabit Kişi, who was forcibly returned from Kazakhstan to Turkey in 2017 where he was subsequently detained in an unknown location and tortured for 108 days.

Transnational repression

The Turkish government has also unsuccessfully tried to abduct its enemies living abroad. In a plot uncovered in Switzerland in March 2017, two Turkish embassy officials allegedly conspired to drug and snatch a Swiss-Turkish businessman, who would be returned to Turkey. The alleged plan suggests the Turkish government has attempted to extend its own political agenda and extraterritorial operations into Western democratic states considered to be a safe haven for Turkish political exiles.

Turkey’s extraterritorial actions represent an example of transnational repression – diverse authoritarian practices intended to silence political dissent abroad. Scholarly research on why authoritarian leaders tend to engage in acts of extraterritorial repression suggests that once autocrats have contained challenges from domestic opposition and gained effective control over media they are more likely to go after their opponents abroad whom they increasingly come to see as the main threat to their regime.

As President Erdogan managed to consolidate his authoritarian rule at home by sidelining other important AKP figures, tightening his control over the state institutions that were increasingly deployed against the opposition, and curbing independent media, his government escalated extraterritorial operations – extrajudicial abductions and renditions – to crackdown on regime opponents abroad.

Together with the use of other forms of transnational repression – most notably the manipulation of Interpol Red Notice mechanism to go after political dissidents across borders – abductions and renditions offer the Turkish government a convenient tool for deterring those who fled to foreign jurisdictions from criticizing its regime by creating an atmosphere of fear among Turkish exile and diaspora communities. Indeed, President Erdogan, in an address to his party members in October 2017, publicly uttered his desire to hunt down every Gulenist abroad whom he labelled as members of a “traitors’ front”.

A global threat

As a result of transnationalization of political activism, authoritarian governments around the world have increasingly sought to maintain control over political exiles and diaspora communities out of concerns for regime survival or stability. As a corollary, authoritarian regimes have increasingly employed diverse repressive strategies to control the expression of political dissent abroad.

The most recent example of such practices is the alleged surveillance of dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich by the Belarusian security services while he was in Greece followed by the forced landing of his flight in Minsk on 23 May, on the flimsy reasoning of a bomb threat, to detain him.

A weak international response and a lack of accountability for acts of transnational repression so far have allowed authoritarian leaders around the world to continue pursuing their opponents overseas with impunity. This has emboldened the Turkish government to kidnap its perceived enemies abroad without any pushback against its covert operations. In fact, Turkey even reportedly pushed its NATO allies to soften the official reaction against the forced landing of flight by the Belarusian authorities to arrest Pratasevich.

Extraterritorial abductions and renditions of Turkish dissidents living abroad take a heavy toll on the victims and the diaspora populations at large. In addition to depriving the victims of their rights to life, liberty, and security, the fear and mistrust these practices spread among members of diaspora communities makes extraordinary renditions an item of critical concern for the international human rights framework.

Turkey’s international partners, and specifically the UN and EU countries in particular, should continue to urge Turkish officials to stop these practices and respect domestic and international legal procedures on the extradition of criminals. They should send a clear message to the Turkish government that these operations are unwelcome on their territories.

The international community and human rights monitoring organizations should also put pressure on similar jurisdictions to ensure they do not yield to Turkey’s politically motivated extradition requests, which is a threat to the rule of law everywhere.

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