Turkey’s Social Security Institution secretly profiled government critics

The Head Office of Social Security Institution (SGK) in Ankara

Nordic Monitor

 

Turkey’s Social Security Institution (SGK) aggressively profiled its employees in an unprecedented witch hunt against government critics, classified files obtained by Nordic Monitor show.

One of the documents, undersigned by SGK head Mehmet Selim Bağlı, states that the list includes the names of people who were purged from the institution on dubious charges and fabricated evidence. The list exposes the modus operandi of the government for the mass purge of nearly 140,000 civil servants without any effective administrative or judicial investigation whatsoever.

All were branded as terrorists for their alleged affiliation or association with a critical movement led by US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen — an outspoken critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over pervasive corruption in the government and Erdoğan’s aiding and abetting of armed jihadist groups in Syria and other places — that has faced an unprecedented crackdown in recent years. Businesses affiliated with the movement were unlawfully seized and people who were seen as supportive of the movement were prosecuted on charges of terrorism in a political witch hunt carried out by the Turkish president to sustain his repressive regime.

 

SGK_Mehmet_Selim_Bagli

 

The list was submitted to Ankara Public Prosecutor Harun Kodalak’s office and was then transmitted to the Investigation Bureau for Crimes against the Constitution a couple of days after the SGK purged dozens of employees under Erdoğan’s executive decree No. 672. In other words, the SGK employees were declared guilty before any judicial review of the government action and without offering any opportunity to the government workers to challenge the charges and contest the evidence, if any.

The seven-page list contains 99 names and their positions at the SGK along with a final column detailing the reason why he or she was expelled. The list shows that the spouses and even children of the SGK employees were profiled by the agency in what amounts to guilt by association. The practice constituted a blatant violation of Turkey’s commitments to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

 

SGK head Mehmet Selim Bağlı (L) is seen displaying the protocol signed with Deborah Greenfield, the deputy director general for policy at the International Labour Organization, in October 2018.

 

None of the activities counted as accusations labeling people as terrorists are defined as a crime under the law. Among them are conducting ordinary banking transactions such as opening accounts, transferring money or taking out loans from a bank that was duly established and licensed by regulators, and enrolling children in schools known to have an affiliation with the Gülen movement, led by US-based Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, an outspoken critic of Erdoğan. In the case of one employee, the SGK cited the spouse’s job in a critical media organization as a reason for dismissal.

Another reason for dismissal included membership in unions that are critical of the Erdoğan government. Neither the bank nor the schools nor the unions were illegal entities at the time these people were involved with them. They were monitored, licensed and audited by both public and private institutions, and they did not hesitate to report to government institutions whenever the laws or regulations obliged them to. Yet after Erdoğan decided to go after Gülen for the latter’s criticism of corruption in the government and Erdoğan’s arming of jihadist groups, the law enforcement agencies and the judiciary under government control started to treat such affiliations as evidence of involvement in clandestine activities.

Some of the pretexts treated as reasons for unlawfully sacking SGK employees are as follows:

Institution’s findings

This is the most blatant admission of profiling. According to the document 30 of the 99 people were discharged because of the SGK’s findings about them. How these “findings” were accomplished is not explained, but it appears that the institution ran internal surveillance to collect information about the private lives of these people and their family members. Under normal conditions, background checks and clearances must be executed as per regulations for administrative probes or on orders from legal authorities in cases of criminal investigation and only in a limited scope within the confines of the law. Such full-fledged and non-ordered inspections into a person’s private life are strictly forbidden under current laws, but in present-day Turkey, laws and rules are non-binding and have no consequences if breached in the crackdown on Gülen movement members over their critical stance.

 

The seven-page secret document that listed absurd pretexts for the dismissal of SGK employees. Nordic Monitor has redacted the national ID numbers of the people on the list to protect their privacy:

SGK_Profiled_notes

 

ByLock

Almost all the people on the list were evaluated as to whether or not they had any record of using ByLock, an application developed for mobile platforms that makes it possible for its users to engage in encrypted communications. Criminalizing the use of the encrypted communication software after it was widely used in Turkey, judicial bodies did not hesitate to declare downloading this program alone to be sufficient proof of affiliation with the movement. It was available for download at the Android and iOs platform app stores and had been installed in hundreds of thousands of mobile devices around the world. Besides, the intelligence bureau of the country, which was carrying out technical surveillance of ByLock users, was able to do so by relying only on the IP numbers that had accessed the servers of the app.

However, profiling people just on the grounds of IP data proved problematic since it was downloaded on many occasions via open WiFi networks or on other occasions, or multiple downloads were performed from a single account through different open accounts or on different devices that might even have belonged to another person. But Turkey’s intelligence agency was categorically labeling anyone who had ever visited the servers of the developers of this app as terrorists. ByLock was also the number one entry in the SGK list of people who were removed from their jobs without even getting a chance to defend themselves.

ByLock usage was put into three categories, labeled with different colors: red, orange and blue. The SGK profiling list also uses the same classifications. Red is used to describe people about whom the intel is nearly certain that they used the app to communicate with others. The orange label identifies the mobile lines on which there is evidence of ByLock usage but not of the person actually using it. The blue category includes the people who might have used this app, but the efforts to collect enough data to verify the usage failed. Despite this three-color categorization, however, even people who were in the least-suspected blue category were fired from the SGK.

Union membership

In the information note, civil servants are commonly accused of membership in unions such as Ufuk Büro Sen (Ufuk Union for Office Workers) and Tüm Çalışanlar Federasyonu (All Workers Federation), etc. Ufuk Büro Sen is the union that most of the profiled SGK civil servants had enrolled in. The union was part of the Cihan Confederation of Unions, both of which were closed down by the first decree-law issued under a state of emergency (OHAL) declared after a failed coup in 2016, along with many others, on the grounds that they were established by members of the Gülen movement. Aside from it being completely legitimate to establish unions, the movement members exercised their constitutional and democratic right to form unions to protect their rights. But the profiling document presents it as one of the most important reasons for allegations of terrorist links.

Associations

The associations included on the profiling list are Tüm Aktif Memurlar Derneği (Association of All Active Civil Servants), Anadolu Çalışanları Eğitim, Kültür ve Dayanışma Derneği (Anatolian Workers Education, Culture and Solidarity Association), Gençlik ve İnovasyon Derneği (Youth and Innovation Association), Milenyum Memurları Derneği (Milenyum Civil Servants Associations), Antalya Memurlar Derneği (Antalya Civil Servants Association), İstanbul Public Workers Association, Kayseri Menba Memurlar Derneği (Kayseri Menba Civil Servants Association), Samsun Memurlar Derneği (Samsun Civil Servants Association), Dinamik Çalışanlar Derneği (Dynamic Workers Derneği), Konya Aktif Memurlar Derneği (Konya Active Civil Servants Association), Erzurum İli Memurlar Derneği (Erzurum Association of Civil Servants) and Kimse Yok Mu (Is Anybody There? – an international nongovernmental humanitarian aid organization). There was not even a single incident of violence ever recorded with these associations, and they had been legitimately established and had operated legally all the time, yet they were labeled in the intelligence notes or institutional profiling documents as evidence of terrorist organization membership. Kimse Yok Mu in particular had been praised during the time it was operating as one of the most effective humanitarian aid institutions, which had extended a helping hand to hundreds of thousands of people around the world and had received recognition even by the United Nations when it was granted the status of Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Special Consultancy.

In the informational statements concerning the membership of profiled people in the associations, such ordinary activities are shown as if these people were doing something criminal. In a few of the myriad examples, Mehmet Yörük, a specialist at the Ankara Social Security Provincial Directorate, was a member of the inspection and administration units of the Milenyum Civil Servants Association. Muammer Parin of the Antalya SGK was both a founding member and a board member of the Antalya Civil Servants Association. Aydın Topal from the Manisa SGK was registered at the İstanbul Civil Servants Association as both a founding and a board member.

Donating to humanitarian causes was also recorded in the SGK profiling as evidence of terrorist organization membership. The Kimse Yok Mu records showed that a man from the İstanbul SGK, Turgut Uzunali, had donated TL 1,300 to charity by means of Kimse Yok Mu on three occasions. Similarly, the foundation found another SGK worker, Yusuf Kara, made a donation to Kimse Yok Mu of TL 310 on September, 17, 2015.

Bank Asya

Almost all people included on the list were assessed under the criteria of whether he or she or one of their relatives had accounts at Bank Asya. In many cases, the explanatory blocks have a sentence stating, “This person has an account in which there was activity after 01/01/2014 in Bank Asya records.”

 

Bank Asya headquarters

Bank Asya was Turkey’s largest participation bank in terms of asset size and customer base. It was the tenth largest private bank in the country in early 2014 before Erdoğan began using government power to attack it. Participation banks are financial institutions that provide banking services to people with religious objections to the use of interest. Their business model relies on becoming partners with companies that are in need of capital within a profit-sharing system rather than directly providing cash for them. Bank Asya was also the healthiest of these banks with the highest capital adequacy ratio — over 18 percent — much higher than the 8 percent minimum enforced by the Basel II criteria. Yet it was one of Erdoğan’s first targets, along with prep schools, in his attacks on the Gülen movement after December 2013, when corruption allegations about him and his inner circle in the political and business realms were revealed in a series of graft operations. Despite the fact that it was a serious crime to slander a bank with false accusations that could lead to legal problems in terms of both heavy fines and prison time, Erdoğan publicly and blatantly attacked Bank Asya and called on businesses to withdraw their money in order to weaken its financial health and establish a reason to confiscate it. He was reported to have shouted in anger at some economy bureaucrats for their not-so-reckless and ineffectual fight against the bank, saying, “I want the keys [to the bank] on my desk in a few days.”

In an attempt to resist this massive assault on a private financial institution, members of the Gülen movement assisted with whatever cashable assets they had. They sold their jewelry, withdrew their money from other banks and even in some cases took out loans from other banks and deposited the funds in their accounts to save Bank Asya. This was a heroic campaign against a ruthless and lawless assault on a legally established and properly audited financial institution. This campaign was later treated by the Erdoğan government as evidence of terrorism and proof of membership in the Gülen movement. The SGK profiling document was full of these assertions for almost all names included.

In some cases, as for Kubilay Vanlıoğlu, even his spouse’s account activity would be mentioned, and in the case of İsmail Batın, the Bank Asya account of one of his acquaintances was shown as proof of his connection to the movement. The profiling note about a person named Lokman Karaaslan informs that his brother worked at Bank Asya until February 2007 (nine years before its closure).

Working at schools

Having a job in the past at one of the educational institutions known to have connections to the Gülen movement has also been used as grounds to prove someone’s affiliation with the movement, a situation in which a person must be assumed to be part of the Gülen community even if he or she is not an active member. If a person or even a relative had been working for institutions or companies known to have close, or in some instances, distant, connections to the movement, he or she is also accepted as part of the movement.

This notion was frequently addressed in the SGK profiling. For example, in the note explaining the reason Mehmet Şerif Gündüz was expelled, his wife’s brief time working at Turgut Özal University is mentioned. Again, Nergiz Kara’s brother was reported to have worked at Melikşah University between October 1, 2012 and September 24, 2014. Şehri Karaca’s spouse was a lecturer at İpek University, and this was one of the key reasons for the firing of Karaca. The sibling of civil servant Zuhal Akıllı was found in the SGK records to have worked as a teacher at a school that was known to have connections to the Gülen movement, between November 2013 and July 2016, and therefore Akıllı was expelled from the institution. In another case, the wife of Berati Akbaş worked at a private school named Irmak between September 2010 and October 2015. The wife of SGK inspector Ferdi Tokar used to work at the Anadolu Kurul private school, which was one of the institutions shut down by government decree-law no. 668.

Professional background

As another profiling category, the seven-page SGK document included notes concerning the professional background of civil servants and workers at the institution. For example, İsmail Çaylak was reported to have worked at Üftade Eğitim Yayınevi, a publishing house known to be close to the movement. The spouse of Sait Güleç, who was an assistant specialist at the SGK’s General Directorate of Insurance Premiums before he was sacked, worked at the Başkent Eğitim Yayınevi between September 2013 and December 2014. A worker at the Muğla Bodrum SGK, Turgay Birol, was dismissed from his position because he had worked at the Körfez prep school in the past. The brother of a person named Zülküf Polat used to work at a company called Gaye Private Education, said the SGK profiling document. The spouse of another civil servant named Ali Dikmen also worked at Gaye between the years 2008 and 2009. Likewise, a sibling of Hacı Mahmut Erdemir used to work as a producer at the Samanyolu news station. Lokman Karaaslan was also found worthy of firing because his brother was on the payroll of Bank Asya.

 

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