The Justice Ministry of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has put an end to Turkey’s persistent efforts to have a journalist living exile extradited to Turkey on trumped-up terrorism charges, disappointing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government and setting a strong precedent for other Turkish citizens living in BİH who are being harassed and threatened with prosecution in Turkey.
Özer Özsaray, 47, formerly the publisher of Sungurlu Gündem, a local newspaper in the Sungurlu district of Çorum province, fled to BiH, a visa-free country for Turkish citizens, to escape persecution and a post-coup witch-hunt of journalists critical of the government following a controversial coup attempt on July 15, 2016. As expected, his newspaper was raided by the police at 1 a.m. on August 12, 2016, and a detention warrant was issued the same day.
Özsaray and his family’s lives were turned completely upside down in 2016, but the worst was yet to come. The then-Sungurlu chief public prosecutor, Tunay Pulça, a ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) partisan, requested Özsaray’s extradition from Bosnian authorities using unorthodox means. Pulça, the prosecutor of a small district, exchanged correspondence with the Bosnian Justice Ministry on his own through the Turkish Embassy in Sarajevo after learning that Özsaray was in BiH.
On May 2, 2017, with a cover letter in Turkish, Pulça asked for Özsaray’s extradition to Turkey, claiming he was a “founder and chief of an armed terrorist organization,” in reference to FETÖ, a derogatory term coined by the AKP government to refer to members of the faith-based Gülen movement. According to official documents obtained by Nordic Monitor, the Turkish Embassy immediately conveyed Pulca’s letter and other documents in Turkish to the Bosnian Foreign Ministry, writing in English, “[The embassy] has the honor to submit herewith the original judicial documents prepared by Sungurlu Chief Prosecutor’s Office, concerning Özer Özsaray” and requesting that they be transmitted to the relevant Bosnian authorities.
When the Bosnian Justice Ministry decided to take legal action on the matter, tasking the Chief Prosecutor’s Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina with dealing with Turkey’s request, a lengthy and tense judicial process started for Özsaray.
On November 22, 2018 a local court questioned the journalist and imposed a ban on leaving the country. The court also ruled there would be no deportation until the Bosnian judiciary made the final decision, given the fact that Özsaray had applied for asylum in BiH on May 11, 2018.
On December 18, 2018 the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina rejected Turkey’s request to extradite Özsaray on the grounds that BİH did not recognize a terrorist organization called FETÖ, referring to a Ministry of Security of Bosnia and Herzegovina document dated November 6, 2018. The decision was upheld by the Bosnian Board of Appeals and announced by Justice Minister Josip Grubesa on January 16, 2019. The minister noted that Turkey’s request did not meet the requirements for compliance with the agreement on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters.
This allowed Özsaray to breathe a sigh of relief, but his problems were not yet over. He found out that a new petition had been submitted to the Bosnian Justice Ministry by the Turkish Embassy in Sarajevo on April 4, 2019 calling for the previous ruling to be reviewed once again in line with the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters agreement.
Upon that request, the Board of Judges asked the Chief Prosecutor’s Office of BiH in May 2019 to present a legal opinion. The Chief Prosecutor’s Office stood behind the earlier court ruling and recommended rejection of Turkey’s extradition request once again. Finally, the Board of Judges decided on May 22, 2019 that the rejection of the extradition request was final and could not be appealed.
Signed by Senadin Begtasevic, the head of the Board of Judges of BiH, the final decision emphasized that Turkey’s request was a violation of the legal principle and international responsibility that called for the existence of a recognized terrorist organization as sine qua non for the crime of “being a founder and chief of a terrorist organization.’’
On May 28, 2019 the justice minister announced the final verdict of the Board of Judges and the dismissal of the petition submitted by Turkish authorities.
The Turkish government is still pursuing the extradition of people in BiH who are affiliated with the Gulen movement. After Erdoğan’s July 8-9 visit to Sarajevo, top Bosnian government officials confirmed that he personally requested the expulsion of seven Turkish nationals.
Meanwhile a group of prominent Bosnians including journalists, artists, academics and writers signed a petition calling on the Bosnian presidency to reject Turkey’s demands and to avoid allowing its sovereignty to be undermined.
The petition reads: “… the Turkish demand, followed by the constant pressure of its leadership, including President of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it is required from Bosnia and Herzegovina to consciously violate its own constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, UN Declaration on Human Rights. If we want to join the society of the modern democratic countries of Europe and the world, you should not allow that luxury. None of the seven people who are on the list didn’t break any law in BiH …”
The group also protested Erdoğan’s expansionist agenda in the Balkans. “We are living in the assurance that by your decision you will confirm that Bosnia and Herzegovina is no longer a pasaluk (administrative unit in Ottoman Empire), in which the orders from Istanbul are absolutely enforced.”