Turkey jailed and convicted officer who had access to NATO intel, was set to run security at Kabul airport

Kabul Airport

Nordic Monitor

 

Lt. Col. Özcan Kurt, who was assigned as commander of Turkey’s Security and Protection Battalion for Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, was  jailed and convicted on fabricated charges of coup plotting by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Kurt had no involvement in any mobilization during a failed coup in Turkey in July 15, 2016 and was preparing to fly to Afghanistan to report for duty. He was selected for overseas deployment by the Turkish General Staff and vetted and cleared by NATO for the crucial post of providing security at the Kabul airport. He was given high-level access to secret NATO intelligence documents and given a NATO travel order.

Yet he was caught up in events unfolding at the General Staff headquarters on July 15, when he dropped by to meet with his superiors and complete the final paperwork before flying to Afghanistan.

 

NATO travel order for Afghanistan mission for Lt. Col. Özcan Kurt:

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Months after he was put in pre-trial detention, Kurt was indicted on both coup plotting and terrorism charges on dubious evidence, although his case file indicated no evidence of any wrongdoing whatsoever. He vigorously defended himself in what appears to have been a kangaroo court whose verdict was already rendered by the Erdoğan government, which controls the judges and prosecutors in Turkey. In May 2018 prosecutor Bülent Karakuş demanded 13 consecutive life sentences for him in his closing argument at the final hearing. The panel of judges convicted and sentenced him to seven years, six months in prison on June 20, 2019.

 

Lt. Col. Özcan Kurt

 

 

Lt. Col. Kurt was in charge of the General Staff Training Department before his assignment to Afghanistan under an appointment certificate dated May 24, 2016. He had completed the battalion command course between May 9 and May 13, 2016 before joining the mission. Then he went on holiday with his family from June 30 to July 3 and organized a circumcision celebration for his son on July 8, before going to Afghanistan, and returned to Ankara on July 10. His actions do not suggest he was plotting a coup when he had been busy with holiday and family affairs. He maintained that he had no relation to the events that took place on the night of the coup.

 

NATO clearance for Lt. Col. Kurt’s access to secret NATO intelligence documents: 

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The reason for his return to Ankara on July 10 was to attend a course on security and counterintelligence from July 11 to 15 in preparation for the Afghanistan posting. He visited General Staff headquarters every day after the conclusion of the course to complete the termination of his current assignment in Ankara and to hand over his responsibilities his replacement. He was there on July 15 for the same purpose. He also received his uniforms for the Afghanistan mission around 17:00-17:30.

His superior, Col. Nuri Gayır, asked him to make sure that everything was in order in his paperwork, which required signatures for clearance from about half a dozen units, including 28 signatures from various sections and departments on the termination papers. He had completed most but not all and was trying to finish everything by evening. He managed to complete all documentation late on July 15.

 

 

CCTV footage shows Lt. Col. Kurt moving through General Staff headquarters with a blue folder in hand to complete his termination papers before flying to Afghanistan.

 

What is more, senior officers such as the heads of personnel, intelligence and operations were still at General Staff headquarters, and Kurt was unable to leave because his supervisors had continued to work after hours. He had to wait until all senior officers left the building. On that day, July 15, the chief of general staff was at headquarters throughout the day, and National Intelligence Organization (MIT) Undersecretary Hakan Fidan was also there between 18:00 and 19:00.

As part of the established protocol at headquarters, he simply could not depart before his superior officers gave him permission to do so. This rule applied to all officers working there.

After 20:00, a security alarm was sounded at the headquarters about an imminent terror attack, and Kurt left the room along with everyone else and went to the courtyard. Outside there was a feeling of panic. At 20:40, gunfire came from the south entrance on the Air Force Command side of the building. He thought like many others in the General Staff that they were under attack but could not figure out who was attacking them. Then, he heard the sounds of helicopter and aircraft flying in the vicinity.

 

Turkish military report confirming the account provided by Lt. Col. Kurt:

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Kurt later heard about the attempted coup on television and realized that the events were unlawful and immediately went back to his office. There was a ban on all entries and exits at the building. Even if he could get out somehow, there was a high probability of being shot by the police or lynched by a mob that had gathered outside the headquarters.

Immediately after returning to his office, Kurt called his wife on the military line since mobile phones were prohibited in the headquarters building. He spoke with his wife for a while. Considering that military phone lines were all monitored and recorded, Kurt’s conversation with his wife was presented during his trial by his lawyer as clear evidence of his innocence. Kurt was explaining to his wife what he thought was happening in the building, a conversation that was in line with his testimony.

 

Lt. Col. Özcan Kurt (file photo)

 

Kurt spent the night of July 15 in his office for safety and was detained by police on the morning of July 16 along with other officers in the General Staff headquarters. Camera footage and the military administrative investigation report as well as the statements of persons present at the time indicate that Kurt had not committed any criminal acts and did not have a gun because officers were not allowed to carry weapons at headquarters, but that he also wanted to leave and was unable to because of the gunfire outside.

Following Kurt’s arrest, his home, workplace, telephone and CCTV security camera recordings were searched and investigated, but no criminal element was found. Nevertheless, he was discharged from the service without any evidence. His repeated legal motions challenging his pre-trial detention were rejected by the court without any reasonable explanation.

He was alleged to have been affiliated with the Gülen movement, a civic group that is highly critical of the Erdoğan government on issues ranging from pervasive corruption to Erdoğan’s arming and funding of jihadist groups in Syria and elsewhere. Yet no evidence was presented by the prosecutor linking him to the group, either.

 

Termination papers that require numerous signatures clearing Lt. Col. Kurt for departure from Turkey:

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He appeared to have been a highly motivated officer with unquestioned integrity, greatly admired by his superiors, with no disciplinary offense in his record and no question about his loyalty to his family, country or nation. However, he was held in pre-trial detention for three years on totally fabricated evidence. His imprisonment took a heavy toll on his family as well as inflicting separation, financial and emotional problems.

The Land Forces Command had even issued a ticket for his flight to Kabul on July 11, and he was scheduled to leave Turkey on July 20.

 

Orders for the Afghanistan mission for Lt. Col. Kurt:

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The Erdoğan government accused 78-year-old Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, leader of the eponymous movement, who has been living in self-imposed exile in the US since 1999, of attempting to overthrow the government in 2016. Gülen has repeatedly and strongly denied the accusations, and the Erdoğan government has failed to present any evidence linking Gülen to the abortive putsch. The US Justice Department said the evidence presented by Turkey to secure his extradition would not stand up to US court scrutiny.

 

One of the many legal briefs filed by Lt. Col. Kurt challenging his unlawful pre-trial detention. All were rejected with no reasonable explanation:

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