Security cooperation agreements have emerged as a significant mechanism used by the regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan since the Gezi anti-government protests of 2013 to harass journalists and critics living abroad.
Research conducted by Nordic Monitor shows that the content of the security agreements has changed in parallel to the transformation of national legislation and that the new documents contain ambiguous copy-paste phrases designed to suppress government opponents outside the country, while the number of agreements has increased since the Gezi uprising.
The Gezi protests erupted in May 2013 over a government plan to destroy and redevelop a park near the famous Taksim Square in central İstanbul. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Turkey to protest Erdogan’s authoritarian policies. The Gezi protests were one of the largest protest rallies in modern Turkish history.
Erdoğan’s strategy of repressing critics and journalists and of destroying freedoms guaranteed by the Turkish constitution and relevant domestic laws accelerated after the Gezi protests. Turkey’s anti-democratic process took on new momentum after corruption scandals that incriminated Erdoğan became public knowledge in the December 17-25, 2013 period.
The text of Turkey’s security cooperation agreements reveals how Erdoğan’s Islamist government considers international security mechanisms a convenient tool for political persecution. It appears the regime launched its diplomatic preparations for an unlawful witch-hunt on foreign soil which was then intensified in the aftermath of a failed coup on July 15, 2016.
Since 2013, agreements have included the same content indicating “In the fight against terrorism, the Parties shall prevent the activities of visual media and writings of the terrorist organizations and their representative institutions operating in their territory against one of the Parties. The parties will consider them as illegal organizations, to which they shall take appropriate measures in accordance with their national legislation.”
“The parties shall develop and apply effective measures in relation to individuals and institutions that provide financial or other support, including shelter, accommodation, training and treatment and logistical support to terrorist organizations in their territories,” the agreements also state.
Turkey’s security cooperation agreements initialed before the Gezi uprising did not include the above paragraphs, with Iraq on October 15, 2009, France on October 7, 2011, Mauritania on February 15, 2012, Somalia on February 12, 2013 and Mongolia on April 11, 2013. The only text having similar content was one signed with Democratic Republic of the Congo on November 15, 2012.
New security mechanisms set up after the Gezi protests included the aforementioned wording, which was copy-pasted into each agreement, with Tanzania, signed on August 2, 2013, Article 2 (1.2.a-b); Maldives, signed on August 14, 2013, Article 3 (1.3.a-b); Azerbaijan, signed on November 13, 2013, Article 1 (2.c-d); Uganda, signed on January 21, 2014, Article 2 (1.3.a-b); Niger, signed on March 11, 2014, Article 2 (1.3.a-b); Senegal, signed on April 11, 2014, Article 2 (1.3.a-b); Cameroon, signed on June 19, 2014, Article 3 (3.a-b); Djibouti, signed on January 24, 2015, Article 2 (1.3.a-b); Mali, signed on February 3, 2015, Article 2 (1.3.a-b); Albania, signed on May 13, 2015, Article 5 (c-d); Rwanda, signed on August 28, 2015, Article 2 (1.3.a-b); Afghanistan, signed on December 24, 2015, Article 2 (2.c-d); Gabon, signed on January 25, 2016, Article 2 (2.c-d); Ecuador, signed on February 4, 2016, Article 2 (1.2.a-b); Chad, signed on November 16, 2016, Article 3 (3.a-b); Benin, signed on December 6, 2016, Article 2 (1.3. a-b); Venezuela, signed on October 6, 2017, Article 2 (2.c-d); Zambia, signed on July 28, 2018, Article 2 (2.a-b); and Palestine, signed on October 25, 2018, Article 2 (3.a-b). In an exception to this, the agreement with Hungary, signed on December 18, 2013, did not mention such issues due to its EU membership status.
Article 5 of the Turkey-Albania diplomatic agreement also describes websites and social media blogs as terrorist activities in addition to “visual media and writings of the terrorist organizations and their representative institutions operating in their territory against one of the Parties.”
The ambiguity of the copy-paste articles has given rise to serious concerns of the possible arrest of Erdoğan critics living in countries that are parties to such security cooperation agreements with Turkey. In accordance with these phrases, the party states may prosecute journalists who are defined as terrorists by President Erdoğan’s government and treat their media institutions as terrorist entities. Moreover, new security agreements have allowed the Turkish Intelligence Organization (MIT) to conduct operations on their soil targeting dissidents.
In a shocking move less than two months after the signing of a security cooperation agreement between Turkey and Cambodia, Mexican-Turkish national Osman Karaca was detained in Phnom Penh, on October 14, 2019, by the Cambodian counterterrorism police at the request of the Turkish Embassy. Karaca is believed to be affiliated with a group critical of the Turkish government and appears to be the latest victim of the Erdoğan government. According to the Turkish media, it was an intelligence operation carried out by MIT in order to secure Karaca’s handover to Turkish authorities although the Turkish Embassy officially requested his deportation.
Amnesty International warned that “If he is forcibly returned to Turkey, he faces a very real risk of ill-treatment and further human rights abuses.”
A security cooperation agreement was initialed by Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng and his Turkish counterpart, Süleyman Soylu, in Ankara on July 30, 2019. Soylu signaled in a speech during the signing ceremony that operations to bring critics back to Turkey from abroad would continue.
Furthermore, these agreements related the activities of legal organizations to terrorism. Such uncertainties in the diplomatic documents pave the way for President Erdoğan to pressure foreign governments to hand over schools and other institutions affiliated with Erdogan’s arch-foe, Fethullah Gülen, to the Maarif Foundation. Gülen has revealed that he rejected Erdoğan’s demand to tap schools operated by businesspeople aligned with his movement for use in promoting the Turkish president’s political goals, which prompted the Turkish government to establish Maarif in order to compete with and take over Gülen schools.
So far, the Erdoğan government has managed to take over 217 schools in 17 countries – Guinea, Somalia, Sudan, Cameron, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Tunisia, Chad, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea, Afghanistan, Venezuela and Pakistan, most of which had security cooperation agreements with Turkey. In addition to political pressure, blackmail, promises of investment and trade deals from Turkey, the agreements have become the basis for the unlawful takeover of these schools.
Pressure on journalists and the crackdown on Erdoğan critics throughout the country had intensified in the aftermath of the corruption scandal of December 2013 that incriminated Erdoğan, his family members and his business and political associates. Immediately after the corruption investigation, Erdoğan accused the police officers, judges and prosecutors involved in the case of mounting a coup against his government and claimed they were linked to the Gülen movement, which he branded a “parallel state.”
The crackdown on critics and the purge of government officials that were initiated in the aftermath of the December 2013 corruption probes accelerated after the failed coup in July 2016 that gave Erdoğan a pretext to pursue a mass purge with no administrative or judicial probes. The government has rounded up over half a million volunteers of the Gülen movement since 2016, mainly on coup, terrorism and defamation charges. The witch-hunt aimed to suppress civil society, silence critical voices and stifle the right to dissent, while Erdoğan continued to transform Turkish democracy into a dictatorship.
In May 2016 Erdogan’s Turkey designated the movement as a terrorist entity without any evidence that Gülen or people affiliated with the movement committed any terrorist acts. Then, the coup attempt was carried out as a false flag in order to create a pretext for the ensuing crackdown. Interestingly, Erdoğan called the failed coup “a gift from God.”
Erdoğan’s regime is now able to continue its witch-hunt abroad thanks to the bilateral security cooperation agreements.