Secret documents obtained by Nordic Monitor reveal how the Turkish intelligence agency has blatantly abused mechanisms of the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) to persecute, harass and intimidate critics and opponents.
The documents show that the dubious and false charges filed by Turkey through Interpol to hunt down legitimate critics of Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have in some cases succeeded in obtaining partial information in at least three countries in Europe. Although fraudulent use and abuse of Interpol mechanisms did not result in the detention and deportation of Turkish government critics in the three cases that were recorded in Belgium, Germany and Poland, the fact that Ankara was able to retrieve at least partial information on their whereabouts using the Interpol system sends a chilling message to critics across the board.
The cases Nordic Monitor reviewed based on official documents involved two prominent businesspeople and one high-profile journalist. In a sharp contrast to established procedures in the Turkish criminal justice system, the Interpol mechanism was triggered by the initiatives of the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), which has no jurisdiction in these matters. Yet the agency has been turned by the Erdoğan government into the main vehicle for going after regime critics and opponents.
The Interpol mechanism known as a “diffusion,” which refers to a notice sent by the Turkish national police directorate’s Interpol section — officially called the Interpol National Central Bureau — was used to trace political opponents of the government. Activated by a fraudulent filing regarding the cancellation of passports and involving Interpol’s Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (SLTD) system, a diffusion is sometimes accompanied by unlawful requests from partisan prosecutors specially tasked by the Erdoğan government with intimidating regime critics.
Although Interpol halted filings by the Turkey bureau and implemented increased filtering after complaints of the violation of the Interpol Constitution, which bars use of the mechanisms for political purposes, the documents show that the requests were nevertheless registered in the Interpol database and conveyed to the national bureaus of the respondent member states.
In one document, stamped secret and urgent, Rafet Ufuk Önder, who heads the Interpol and Europol departments within Turkey’s National Police Directorate, informed the Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s Office on August 1, 2016 that a Turkish businessperson who was critical of the Erdoğan government was identified by intelligence agency MIT as having taken a flight on July 20, 2016 from Istanbul to Bishkek on Pegasus Airlines, a low-cost Turkish carrier. Önder urged the prosecutor to make use of Interpol mechanisms against this businessman with a view to securing his extradition or deportation. This was quite unusual since normally the prosecutor should be ordering such a request, not the police.
The standard procedure for employing Interpol mechanisms in Turkey requires the approval and order by a judge and/or prosecutor, who later transmits the order to the Justice Ministry for review and compliance. If everything is in order, the Interpol National Central Bureau, attached to the Interior Ministry, files the necessary paperwork and functions as sort of a secretary for Interpol work. In this case, it was the other way around as the intel came from MIT, which prompted the police to recommend that the prosecutor initiate the Interpol mechanisms.
Nordic Monitor is keeping the identity of the Turkish businessperson and others anonymous in all three cases for reasons of security. The documents have been redacted to keep their names and identities hidden.
All three are seen by the Turkish government as affiliated with the Gülen movement, a civic group that is highly critical of the Erdoğan government for corruption and aiding and abetting of armed jihadist groups in Syria.
The document also reveals MIT has access to passenger manifests for outbound flights and monitors incoming and outgoing passengers in Turkey.
The secret document was transmitted to Istanbul deputy chief public prosecutor Hacı Hasan Bölükbaşı on August 16, 2016 in a sealed envelope. On August 19, 2016 Istanbul deputy chief public prosecutor İsmail Uçar forwarded the document to Fuzuli Aydoğdu, the deputy public chief prosecutor at the Istanbul Courthouse.
In the second case, a document dated August 3, 2016 shows police chief Önder filed a request to use the Interpol mechanisms against another businessperson. The document states that the police cancelled the businessman’s passport on April 12, 2016 on the pretext that it was stolen and/or lost and registered on the Interpol database as such. There was no application made by the businessperson to report his passport was lost or stolen, yet the Turkish police falsely filed such a request on his behalf and reported it through the Interpol database.
The businessman’s passport was queried by Germany’s Interpol section and reported to the Interpol database, prompting Turkish authorities to ask for the seizure of the passport and the extradition of the businessman to . The document shows Önder asked for an Interpol Red Notice for him. The request was sent to the Directorate for International Law and International Relations at the Justice Ministry through the Istanbul prosecutor’s office.
A diffusion was issued for this businessperson by Turkey through Interpol and reported to national Interpol units in Poland, Germany and the United States. Only Poland responded to the Turkish query and stated in an email dated August 25, 2016 that the person was cleared through Warsaw-Okecie Airport (now Warsaw Frederic Chopin Airport) on April 13, 2016. Polish authorities concluded that the passport was authentic and the person was the valid holder of the passport and therefore allowed him to proceed. In other words, a day after Turkey illegally cancelled his passport and reported it stolen, Polish authorities were not convinced by the Turkish filing through Interpol and did not buy the false pretext. Poland also asked Turkey to file a Red Notice with Interpol if it wanted further information such as the whereabouts of the Turkish businessman.
The third case applies to a high-profile Turkish journalist who is wanted for arrest by Turkish authorities. The journalist had to flee Turkey in 2016 was traveling on a Turkish passport that was illegally cancelled by the Turkish police, again on the pretext that it was lost and/or stolen. The false filing was reported as such to the Interpol database. When the journalist landed at the Brussels airport, authorities seized the passport because of the alert that appeared in the system. In a message to Turkish Interpol, Belgian authorities said they would turn over the passport to Turkey but that the person had a valid residence permit in Belgium and as such the journalist would not be deported.
These three cases are only select examples of many fraudulent filings by Turkey, which prompted major criticism from its international partners. When their nationals of Turkish origin were detained in Spain in 2017 on a fraudulent Red Notice arrest warrant requested by Turkey, the German and Swedish governments immediately reacted and brought these political cases to the attention of the European Union, which later took action by asking Interpol to prevent such abuse. The EU as well as the Council of Europe raised the question of violation of the Interpol Constitution by Turkey through filing cases that did not warrant any criminal action but were rather seen as politically motivated harassment tactics.
The most recent case is the Turkish government’s demand to Interpol to have Enes Kanter, an NBA basketball player of Turkish origin, arrested and extradited to Turkey by putting his name on Interpol’s Red Notice list. Kanter had to decline to join his team, the New York Knicks, on a trip to London for an NBA game in early January 2019. He had barely escaped arrest while in Jakarta, where he stopped as part of a global goodwill tour on May 19, 2017. Kanter was detained on May 20, 2017 at Henri Coandă International Airport in Bucharest because his passport was reported to have been cancelled by the Turkish government. The NBA star was subsequently released after the US government and NBA officials intervened on his behalf.
On July 9, 2018 the Turkish president announced that the government would lift restrictions on the passports of 181,500 people who had not been the target of any investigation or prosecution but were simply relatives of critics and opponents. In some cases, even ex-wives became the subject of harsh measures by the government. This was unprecedented in the history of the Turkish Republic. In practice, this pledge of removal of restrictions was reportedly not enforced as many returned from the airport without traveling even after they were able to get new passports when the restrictions were lifted.
According to data provided by the Turkish Justice Ministry on June 6, 2018 legal action – most in the form of police detention – has been taken against 411,195 people over alleged membership in the Gülen movement since 2016. Considering that the government often cancels the passports of people when they face legal action, without a court ruling in most cases, we have almost 600,000 Turkish nationals who have lost their passport privileges in this witch-hunt. Moreover, the government also cancelled the passports of over 130,000 government employees who were dismissed from their jobs overnight on terrorism charges without any effective administrative or judicial review. Bearing in mind that some of the names on the government purge list may overlap with those already facing legal action, Turkey may have acted against around 650,000 people in passport cancellations.
How many of these cancellations were reported to the Interpol database is not known, but in Germany alone Turkey has submitted 848 requests including applications to the country’s law enforcement agency for the arrest of 791 people and for determination of the residential addresses of 57 people located in Germany according to the German Justice Ministry, which announced the figures in response to a parliamentary inquiry from Germany’s Left Party (Die Linke).