Turkey’s Long Arm Sparks Criminal Case In Moldova
15 August, 2019

Seven Turkish teachers who sought asylum in Moldova were seized and forcibly returned to Turkey in September 2018. Since then, their case was brought before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and Moldova was condemned for violating the rights of the Turkish citizens. Now, Moldova is initiating a criminal case in response to the abuse of power and overstepping of authority that took place when they were expelled. But their case is hardly unique. Since 2016, countries in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus have seen a number of controversial arrests and extraditions at the request of the Turkish authorities.

The Turkish teachers deported from Moldova are accused of having ties to FETÖ, an organization led by U.S. based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen that is also known as the Gülen movement. The well-known preacher is the founder of a worldwide network of schools and universities located in over 160 countries, but his organization is outlawed in Turkey as an “armed terrorist group.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blamed the Gülen movement for an attempted coup in July 2016 and a warrant was issued for Fethullah Gülen’s arrest in Turkey. If detained, he faces life imprisonment. 

In the meantime, tens of thousands of people have been arrested for links to Gülen in Turkey and over 100,000 people have lost their jobs. But the crackdown doesn’t end there. Since the failed 2016 coup, Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) has been going after alleged members of the Gülen movement and other Turkish dissidents living abroad. 

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Turkish intelligence agents captured over 100 alleged members of the Gülen movement between 2016 and 2018, extraditing them to Turkey from countries like Bulgaria, Kosovo, Ukraine, Moldova,  and Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, the authorities in other countries – like Georgia – appear to have come under pressure to close Gülen schools. 

School Closures in Georgia

In May 2017, the director of a Gülen-affiliated private college, Mustafa Emre Çabuk, was detained in Georgia at the request of the Turkish authorities. Both he and his family applied for refugee status to avoid extradition, but were initially refused. According to a document that Georgia’s Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation submitted to Çabuk’s lawyer, he was denied refugee status on the grounds that he would not face a “substantial risk of persecution” in the event of his return to Turkey. 

In response, a number of Georgian NGOs condemned the decision, calling it unfounded, illegal and politically motivated.

The main argument of the Ministry is based on the controversial assertion that the organization of Fethullah Gülen is considered a terrorist organization in Turkey and the criminal prosecution of the members of this organization is legitimate,” the NGOs’ statement said. “The Ministry fully ignores the international organizations’ assessment of mass violation of fundamental human rights in the process of criminal prosecution of persons involved in Fethullah Gülen’s movement, which substantially changes the legal nature of this process and imparts political content to the matter.” 

Çabuk spent ten months in detention before the Tbilisi Municipal Court freed him on February 19, 2018. In the meantime, however, a number of Turkish schools in Georgia associated with the Gülen network were closed. Although the official reason for the closure was said to be administrative violations, some Georgian experts believed that Turkey was pressuring Georgia to close the schools.

“Georgia is very vulnerable in its relations with its strategic partner and will not be able to cope with this pressure alone,” said political scientist Cornelia Kakachia. “It is unacceptable to sign an association agreement with the European Union [with] one hand, while the other closes successful schools and considers the extradition of Çabuk. These actions are not compatible with each other, and greatly harm the democratic image of Georgia.”

Joint Operations

Although Çabuk was allowed to stay in Georgia, this appears to be the exception rather than the rule over the last few years. The Erdoğan administration began pressuring countries for the return of alleged Gülenists in the aftermath of the attempted coup in July 2016 – and even carrying out intelligence operations to bring the accused back. By October of that year, Bulgaria had already returned at least six people linked to the Gülen network – and other countries in the Balkans, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus followed suit.

On March 29, 2018 Kosovar intelligence agents took part in a joint operation with Turkey’s intelligence agency, seizing six Turkish citizens – all of whom worked in schools in Kosovo linked to the Gülen movement. They were extradited to Turkey and,  according to their lawyers, were flown back by private jet and tortured en route. 

A few months later, similar deportations took place in Azerbaijan and Ukraine. On June 7, Taci Şentürk, the manager of an Isket school in Baku was detained and taken to the airport on the grounds that his passport was suddenly invalid. He was initially removed from the plane to Turkey at the insistence of a representative of the UN Refugee Agency’s Baku Office, who offered him a temporary protection letter. But even UN delegation was ultimately unable to prevent Şentürk’s deportation. He was flown to Ankara on June 8, where he was arrested by Turkish police on allegations of involvement in “the Gülenist Terrorist Organization.” His lawyer lodged a case with the European Court of Human Rights the following day. 

On June 21, a Baku court held its first hearing on Turkey’s request to extradite Turkish national Isa Özdemir – a man who had been living in Azerbaijan since he received asylum from the United Nations in 1993. The Turkish authorities accused him of being a FETÖ member and he was returned to Turkey after a second court hearing on July 4, 2018. 

“Some countries were slow on this issue [of cracking down on Gülenists], and the Gülen movement succeeded in infiltrating them. But Azerbaijan took timely measures. Turkey will continue to provide support to Azerbaijan in its fight with the Gülen movement,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavuşoğlu during his visit to Baku later that month. 

And so the extraditions continued. On July 11, Turkish entrepreneur Salih Zeki Yiğit was abducted in Odesa, Ukraine and flown back to Turkey. According to Ukraine-based Turkish journalist Yunus Erdoğdu, Members of Turkey’s intelligence agency were likely responsible.

READ MORE: Turkish Journalist Extradited from Ukraine in Covert Operation 

The very next day, the Security Service of Ukraine arrested Turkish journalist and blogger Yusuf Inan at his residence in Mykolaiv. A court hearing was held that same day, where it was revealed that his residence permit had been cancelled, making him eligible for deportation. He requested political asylum and was granted five days recourse, but was extradited to Turkey on the night of July 15, before the process could be completed. His Ukrainian wife and his lawyer were not informed of his extradition. 

In response, Harlem Désir, the Representative on Media Freedom for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), criticized the authorities in Ukraine for extraditing Inan. 

“Journalists should not be prosecuted for expressing their opinions and it is of concern that a critical journalist was extradited to Turkey,” Désir wrote in a letter of concern on July 19, 2018. “I ask the Ukrainian authorities to clarify whether his freedom of expression and right to appeal were taken into consideration.” 

Abuse of Power and Overstepping Authority

The seven Turkish teachers expelled from Moldova on September 6, 2018 had been working as private school teachers for the Gülen-linked Turkish high school chain Orizont. According to Moldova’s Intelligence and Security Service, the men were suspected of having ties to what they described as an Islamist group responsbile for carrying out illegal actions in a number of countries.  

They were detained when leaving their homes to go to work. 

“We failed. Teachers and staff of Orizont have been deported to Turkey,” wrote then-Member of European Parliament Rebecca Harms on Twitter. “Violation of rule of law and human rights under pressure from Turkey happen again and again. Not the way to normalize E.U.-Turkey relations. [The] E.U. has to make it an issue.” 

On July 11, 2019, the ECtHR issued a ruling on the case that five of the teachers extradited from Moldova had submitted. The European Court declared that Yasin Özdil, Müjdat Çelebi, Riza Doğan, Sedat Hasan Karacaoğlu and Mehmet Feridun Tüfekçi were removed from Moldova by an illegal transfer that overlooked all national and international legal guarantees. According to the lawyer representing the Turkish citizens, the Moldovan state did not present any evidence that the applicants were or are a danger to the country’s security and public order.

According to the ECtHR, Moldova had violated Articles 5.1 (the right to liberty and security of person) and 8 (the right to respect for private and family life) of the Convention on Human Rights during the extradition of the five school teachers. As a result, the Court ruling obliged Moldova to pay a total of €125,000 in damages; €25,000 each to the five Turkish citizens who filed the complaint before the Court.

After the ECtHR condemned Moldova for human rights violations, the country’s Internal Protection and Anti-Corruption Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs carried out a service investigation into what went on. Now, nearly a year later, the country’s Prosecutor General’s Office has announced a criminal case in response to the abuse of power and overstepping of authority that took place when they were deported. 

The case has been initiated against employees of Moldova’s Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Bureau for Migration and Asylum, as well as employees of the Intelligence and Security Service who were responsible for extraditing the Turkish citizens in September 2018.

Back in Turkey, five of the seven teachers have since been imprisoned. Riza Doğan and Yasin Özdil were the most recent among them to be sentenced. Doğan received a seven-and-a-half year prison sentence in July 2019. And on August 2, Özdil was sentenced to twelve years’ imprisonment.

/ Adapted by Eilish Hart. Using materials by Hromadske International,  Ziarul de Gardă, Meydan TV and Jam News. Courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange.