Turkish intelligence agency’s secret profiling of critics exposed

 

Secret Turkish intelligence documents obtained by Nordic Monitor have revealed the extent of pervasive profiling of unsuspecting citizens in Turkey and how irrelevant, incredibly vague and unspecified information led to the prosecution of tens of thousands of legitimate government critics and opponents.

In a letter sent to the Istanbul 29th High Criminal Court on Sept. 26, 2017, classified as secret by the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), legal counsellor Ümit Ulvi Canik attached the intelligence notes kept by the agency on 31 defendants who were facing trial on charges of alleged terrorism. Canik signed the letter on behalf of intelligence chief Hakan Fidan.

 

 

Secret Turkish Intelligence letter signed by the agency’s legal counsellor on behalf of Undersecretary Hakan Fidan.

 

The 10-page classified document was sent to the court after the judges ordered the agency on July 27, 2017 to present documents on defendants who were accused of links to the Gülen movement, a civic group that is highly critical of the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Each page of the report starts with a caveat by MIT which states that the information gathered on the defendants was to be used only for intelligence purposes and could not be used as evidence in a court of law. In the event documentation was needed, MIT advised that relevant organizations and agencies must be contacted to document the information included in the intelligence file. In other words, MIT was suggesting that illegal profiling data can be gathered by other relevant government agencies and dressed up in legal form if authorities want to use it in prosecutions.

Personal data such as national ID numbers and the names of children and relatives found in the documents have been redacted by Nordic Monitor.

The profiling also lays bare how court cases in Turkey have been driven by the intelligence agency, which has no role in judicial matters as part of the executive branch. The MIT legal caveat effectively instructed prosecutors and judges on how to obtain similar profiling data through other channels, hiding the fact that the information in fact came from MIT in the first place.

It is also shocking to see that the information on the defendants includes perfectly legitimate activities such as sending their children to the country’s best-performing schools run by the Gülen movement, depositing funds in a private bank, vacationing at a resort hotel, working for companies linked to the movement and using mobile applications that were perfectly legal at the time. The schools, the bank, the companies and the other organizations were licensed and duly authorized by the government and regularly monitored and audited by the relevant government agencies.

The profiling data is also proof that the precious resources of the security establishment in the Erdoğan government have been wasted on tracking, monitoring and running surveillance on people who have nothing to do with terrorism or crime. It reveals the intelligence agency, run by Erdoğan confidant and pro-Iranian figure Fidan, was transformed into a tool of repression that went after unsuspecting citizens when it should have been pursuing armed jihadist groups that were mushrooming in Turkey and its neighborhood.

Here are some of the examples from the secret Turkish intelligence files. An intelligence note about defendant Adem Özdemir says he stayed at a popular resort hotel, the Asya Thermal Holiday Village in Ankara’s Kızılcahamam district Feb. 14-18, 2010. The hotel was managed by Turkish firm Nil Yönetim Hizmet Emlak Turizm Sanayi ve Ticaret A.Ş., whose majority shares were owned by Bank Asya, a banking and finance group that was close to the Gülen movement. The Asya Thermal Holiday Village, famous for its thermal waters and health and spa treatments, included a 5-star hotel with 94 rooms and 200 beds and 494 luxury time-share units, swimming pools, a shopping mall, a culture center and a congress center.

 

 

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) used to hold its annual conventions at this resort until it discontinued the practice in 2014. If Özdemir’s stay at this resort was to be considered a crime, all Cabinet members and AKP lawmakers including Erdoğan himself must be considered suspects according to the MIT information note. Another defendant, Ömer Gurukan, was also profiled because he had spent three days at this resort village in 2012. Veli Yildiz was flagged for spending his holidays at the resort hotel in 2011, 2012 and 2014. Tuncay Felek spent two days at the resort in November 2011. Ramazan Barlas was there for two days in 2011.

The Asya Thermal Holiday Village

Another bizarre pretext that landed many Turks in the intelligence case files is the fact that they sent their children to the country’s best-performing schools, which were run by entrepreneurs close to the movement. In other words, parents who wanted to provide the best education for their children were punished for enrolling them in these schools, which were once popular among AKP lawmakers as well. Yet, people who were associated with Erdoğan including his chief of staff Hasan Dogan who sent their children to these schools were spared, while many others were profiled and prosecuted for wanting what was best for their children.

The intelligence notes also show that the agency profiled spouses, family members including children and relatives of the defendants in a guilt-by-association fallacy. Defendant Emiş Emre was profiled because her daughter was enrolled in an elementary school run by the Gülen movement. Defendant Aziz Bayir was accused of Gülen links because his son was enrolled in an elementary school operated by the movement. Mehmet Kadir Göktürk was flagged because his daughter attended elementary and secondary schools that were affiliated with the movement. His second daughter was also enrolled in a primary school run by the movement.

Turan Odabaş was profiled because his two daughters attended an elementary school run by the Gülen movement in Istanbul. Considering that the Erdoğan government shut down 1,069 Gülen schools in Turkey in 2016, negatively impacting the lives of 138,000 students, tens of thousands of parents in Turkey were considered to be potential terrorism suspects by the Turkish regime. The figure does not include Gülen-linked tutoring centers, dorms and study centers that were also shut down by the government.

 

 

The Turkish intelligence agency’s notes also flagged people as criminals because they had deposits in Bank Asya, once the largest Islamic lender and one of the biggest private banks in Turkey until it was unlawfully seized by the government in May 2015. The bank, which had 210 branches, 5,000 employees and around 1.5 million clients, was founded on Oct. 24, 1996 upon formal approval from the regulators. It operated under the supervision of independent regulatory bodies in Turkey that were responsible for overseeing the banking sector. At least 700,000 people were reportedly put under investigation for their connections to the bank.

The bank was one of three with the highest liquidity in Turkey, yet it was targeted by Erdoğan because its shareholders included investors who were seen as close to the Gülen movement. Erdoğan first tried to trigger a run on the bank by wrongfully claiming that it was bankrupt but failed in his attempts to do so. Then he orchestrated a legal case to take over the bank by using partisan prosecutors. The government not only went after the shareholders and bank managers but the account holders as well.

Defendant Cevdet Binnetoğlu was profiled because his wife had an account with Bank Asya in 2014 and his sister worked in a Gülen school. Nejdet Saygili was identified as a criminal because his wife opened an account at Bank Asya between 2013 and 2014 and his sister had worked for a Gülen-linked company. Derviş Yalım was profiled because he had worked for a firm linked to the movement between 2005 and 2006.

 

 

 

 

Working for schools, foundations and companies established by businesspeople who were seen as close to the Gülen movement was another reason for the intelligence agency to keep tabs on Turkish nationals. There is no exact figure on how many businesses were operated by people close to the movement or what the total number of employees was, but the government seized over 1,000 companies including major conglomerates with over $11 billion in assets. For schools and tutoring centers that were shut down in 2016, a Stockholm Center for Freedom study found that 65,214 teachers and support staff were employed by these institutions.

That means tens of thousands of people in this category were flagged by Turkish intelligence in an unprecedented profiling campaign. In fact, this was reflected in the case files sent to the court. For instance, a defendant named Adil Yıldız was profiled because his daughter Ayşegül had worked for a Gülen-linked school from 2012 to 2015. Ismail Başören was listed because he had worked for companies believed to be linked to the movement between 2004 and 2013 and later worked for a Gülen school between 2013 and 2015. Bülent Kaynaroğlu had worked for Gülen-linked companies between 1995 and 1997 and 2000 and 2011. Ismail Boşnak was profiled because he was a partner in a construction firm that MIT believed was linked to Gülen businesspeople. Necmi Kuloğlu was profiled for having worked for a Gülen-linked company between 2004 and 2005 and because his brother was also an employee of another Gülen-affiliated firm from 2005 to 2015.

Perhaps the most problematic profiling done by the Turkish intelligence agency was through criminalizing publicly available encryption software based on a controversial claim that a smart phone application called ByLock was used by members of the Gülen movement. It was alleged that the app was a secret communication tool among members, and whoever downloaded it from the Internet was considered to be a “terrorist.” The profiling of people due to the ByLock app proved to be troublesome as the IP data and traffic data did not identify unique users and found multiple users who downloaded the app on a single account or from open Wifi connections.

 

Independent report on ByLock debunked MIT claims.

 

The intelligence agency failed to present the content of the messages in most cases, and there was nothing incriminating in the few cases where the intelligence agency found the content of the conversation. The traffic data were not obtained through legal procedures, and MIT did not explain how it came up with the ByLock list. Perhaps that is why MIT warned every time it sent the list to authorities that a proper verification must be done and that the list could not be used in criminal cases. However, in all cases we see in Turkey, the courts regarded the list as evidence enough to convict defendants without going through a proper investigation or independent analysis. For example, Aydın Sefa Akay, a judge for the United Nations Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT), was arrested on terrorism and coup charges on Sept. 21, 2016 based on his use of the ByLock software. He admitted to having used it to communicate for his confidential business at the UN, but he was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison for that.

The criminalization of encrypted software drew the ire of David Kaye, United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, who said in his report in June 2017 that “[t]he authorities have linked ByLock to the Gülen movement, claiming that it is a secret communication tool for Gulenists. The arrests take place sometimes merely on the basis of the existence of ByLock on a person’s computer, and the evidence presented is often ambiguous. Reportedly, the MIT obtained a list of global ByLock users that has been used to track and detain persons. Tens of thousands of civil servants reportedly have been freedom dismissed or arrested for using the application.”

The UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention stated in October 2018 that detention, arrest and conviction based on ByLock use in Turkey violated of Articles 19, 21 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In December 2018 Turkey’s interior minister announced that there were more than 90,000 ByLock users in the country.

 

 

In the profiling list, MIT listed individuals based on alleged ByLock use. Muhiddin Yildirim was profiled because ByLock was downloaded from the Internet to accounts that belonged to his wife and brother. Turan Odabaş’s brother’s Internet account was assessed to have been used for downloading the ByLock application, while another brother had an account at Bank Asya. Rukiye Bunlu was profiled because the Internet account owned by her husband was used to download ByLock and because a plaintiff colleague alleged that she was linked to the Gülen movement. Sezgin Yamen was profiled because his brother’s Internet account was used to download ByLock.

Not only people who downloaded the ByLock application but also those who were found to have downloaded the Herkül mobile application were flagged. The application, which is available publicly on Google Play, iTunes and other platforms, provides the content of the public speeches and writings of Fethullah Gülen, the cleric who inspired the movement. MIT monitored the traffic data on servers that maintain the app and tracked user accounts from Turkey when they downloaded it.

 

 

 

For example, Bülent Kaynaroglu was profiled because the Internet account in his name was used to download Herkül and also because he was associated with another man who used the app. Ismail Başören was listed by the agency because he had what the agency described as an “unspecified connection” to a person who used the Herkul and ByLock apps. Efkan Hocaoğlu was also profiled for alleged use of the Herkül mobile application.

In some cases the intelligence notes sound quite vague, generic and lack specifics. For example, for defendant Alaatin Harman, the MIT note stated that he had been associated with a man known to be linked to Gülen but that the extent of the association was not known. The note includes Alaatin’s brother in the profiling document because the brother, Haci Mustafa, had an account at Bank Asya in 2014.

Ismail Boşnak had an unspecified relationship with a man suspected of being a Gülenist. Again, Turkish intelligence found nothing on defendant Halid Serdar except that he had an “unspecified” connection to an “unidentified” three people who were believed to be linked to the movement, according to the file. Tuncay Felek was profiled because MIT also claimed he was associated with a man who was believed to be involved in failed coup bid in July 2016, but the scope of the relationship was not determined.

 

 

In an intelligence note defendant Ramazan Barlas was identified as a person who made a donation to the Kimse Yok Mu charity in 2013. Likewise, defendant Ali Öz was profiled because he donated TL 55 to Kimse Yok Mu, which was set up in 2004 in Istanbul and had quickly developed internationally recognized relief programs in partnership with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The charity was also targeted by the Erdoğan government because of its affiliation with the Gülen movement. The group was the only aid agency that held UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) special consultative status at the time.

It was active in 113 countries for years and developed the capacity to deliver emergency relief in disaster zones as well as to rebuild infrastructure in communities, thereby providing long-term assistance, which included the construction of homes, hospitals, schools and health facilities. However, it came under fire by the Turkish government when Erdoğan started attacking the Gülen movement. First, Kimse Yok Mu’s licenses to raise, hold and use funds for charitable work were suspended on Sept. 22, 2014, and the charity was shut down in 2016.

Many employees were jailed or faced arrest and prosecution on dubious charges. Ironically, it was Erdoğan himself who participated in Kimse Yok Mu’s fundraising drives and asked businesspeople to contribute to its charitable causes. Many people were subsequently arrested simply because they made a donation to the charity group.

The intelligence profiling notes that were used in abusive criminal prosecutions and trials in Turkey in clear violation of the Code on Criminal Procedure (CMK) and the penal code show how the rule of law has been suspended in the country. The witch-hunt targeting the government’s legitimate critics is mainly driven by the Turkish intelligence agency, which was transformed into Erdoğan’s private detective agency after a major purge of agents from the organization. Now MIT’s main political mandate is to go after the president’s opponents and government critics when in fact it is supposed to gather information and investigate real terrorists and criminals such as the armed jihadist cells that are proliferating in all 81 of Turkey’s provinces.

MIT_profiling_notes

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