The profiling of critics by Turkish embassies, part of large-scale spying on diaspora groups that has irked many host governments, has taken a new twist in Sri Lanka, a South Asian country that was recently hit by a string of terrorist attacks.
The Turkish Embassy in Colombo leaked the names of critics of Turkey’s Islamist ruler, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, accusing them of terrorism, when no evidence to support any of these ludicrous charges leveled by the government in Turkey exists. The critics are believed to be affiliated with the Gülen movement, a vocal critic of the Erdoğan regime over pervasive corruption in the government and Erdoğan’s arming and funding of radical jihadist groups in Syria and Libya.
The names of 50 Turks, mostly teachers and businesspeople who had been living in Sri Lanka for years, were released with their passport numbers, apparently as a result of work clandestinely carried out by the Turkish ambassador and his staff at the embassy. The goal was to push Sri Lankan authorities to crack down on Erdoğan government critics in the South Asian country. The first attempt by the embassy to smear this civic group was made in 2015, a move that was was initially balked at by the Sri Lankan government. It was not surprising given the fact that most governments have refused to work with Turkey in going after Erdoğan’s critics, who have not broken the laws of their host countries and certainly have not been involved in any crimes.
Yet, the Turkish Embassy in Colombo, under relentless pressure from a headquarters that was demanding results, continued to raise the matter with Sri Lankan authorities in 2017 and 2018. Many Turkish diplomats are obviously afraid that they could end up in jail just like some 600 diplomats who were dismissed and labeled overnight as terrorists in Turkey without any effective judicial or administrative investigation.
When churches and hotels in the capital of Colombo were targeted in a series of coordinated suicide bombings on April 21, 2019, killing 259 people, the embassy staff saw an opportunity to make a fresh attempt against Erdoğan critics just like scavengers that feed on carcasses. Branding them as terrorists, Turkish Ambassador Tunca Özçuhadar tried to exploit sensitivities in Sri Lanka and spin his own story in a bid to portray innocent and law-abiding Turkish expatriates in Sri Lanka as terrorists. In a statement put out on May 3, 2019, the Turkish Embassy admitted that it had been sharing with Sri Lankan authorities information on teachers and businesspeople affiliated with the Gülen movement for the last four years.
The illegal profiling by the embassy was also revealed by former State Foreign Minister Wasantha Senanayake, who announced that the Turkish ambassador had handed over a list of 50 Turks to the ministry when he was in office. Later, the ambassador even bypassed the foreign ministry and directly raised the issue with the Defense Ministry in the hope that he could secure the deportation or extradition of critics. The embassy faxed lists of critics to the Defense Ministry on at least two occasions.
Turkey has branded one-third of all its diplomats including high-profile ambassadors who served as advisors to prime ministers and presidents as terrorists; purged over 4,000 judges and prosecutors; and expelled over 70 percent of its generals and admirals on dubious terrorism charges. Over half a million people including journalists, teachers, professors and human rights defenders have faced criminal charges since 2016. Some 15 percent of the police force, mostly veterans and senior chiefs, have been arrested on terrorism charges.
Turkey has held the world record in recent years in terms of jailing journalists under abusive anti-terror charges. According to the Stockholm Center for Freedom, nearly 200 journalists and media workers are behind bars in Turkey on charges of terrorism for writing critically about the government.
The scandalous leak of private information by the embassy and the branding of teachers as terrorists prompted some on the list to file complaints with Sri Lankan authorities. Nordic Monitor has learned that eight Turks in Sweden who served in Sri Lanka at Gülen-affiliated schools and institutions between 2002 and 2015 lodged formal grievances with the Sri Lankan Embassy in Stockholm, asking for an explanation for the published list. Some of the people named in the list have never even been in Sri Lanka, raising questions as to how the embassy gathered the data.
“It is unacceptable that I have been declared a terrorist in Sri Lanka, where I worked for two years! I’m willing to do whatever it takes to correct this mistake as soon as possible. If necessary, I will make a request to international institutions such as the UN to rectify this situation. It is a clear assault on my personal rights that I was declared a terrorist in Sri Lankan newspapers without any evidence. I hope this serious mistake is corrected soon. Otherwise, I will act to preserve my rights in Sri Lankan and international courts,” one Turkish national wrote to the Sri Lankan Embassy in Stockholm.
About a dozen Turkish nationals who fled the long arm of Erdoğan in Sri Lanka have taken refuge in Sweden as political asylum seekers. Embassy officials responded by saying that they had conveyed the grievances to headquarters in Sri Lanka and asked for an explanation about the leaked list of names.