In a new effort to silence government critics abroad, a Turkish court has requested the extradition of a Turkish journalist who is living in exile in Sweden for allegedly insulting two officers of the court in 2018.
Levent Kenez, an editor for Nordic Monitor, is accused of libeling a prosecutor and a judge at an İstanbul court in an article published on Turkish-language news website TR724 on February 17, 2018 after the court had handed down aggravated life sentences to six journalists and media workers on trumped-up charges of attempting to destroy the constitutional order.
Prosecutor Yasemin Baba, who had previously drafted several indictments that called for harsh sentences for journalists, ordered the police to open an investigation and report back to her immediately after the article was published. The police, indicating that Kenez had already been profiled, provided her with a 30-page intelligence report including his phone records and personal flight information dating back to 2000, identity registry copies that included those for his two daughters, bank accounts, social security records and personal information. Baba also issued a detention warrant for Kenez on February 27, 2018, one day before she filed an indictment, which is unusually quick given the customary slowness of the Turkish judicial system.
The court proceedings began on July 5, 2018 in absentia and proceeded as an ordinary trial until March 25, 2019, when the Ministry of Justice sent an intelligence report written by the Interior Ministry saying that Kenez was residing in Sweden and asked if the court had drafted a formal extradition request along with a Red Notice. Surprisingly, the court had ruled not to request a Red Notice for Kenez given the nature of the offense during the fifth hearing, on July 18, 2019. However, the ministry sent a new directive on August 9, 2019, this time requesting that the İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office urge the court to prepare documents for an extradition request and to follow instructions attached to the directive. Finally, the İstanbul 36th High Criminal Court decided to file an extradition request for Kenez at the sixth hearing, on December 12, 2019.
The documents for the extradition request were prepared on March 9, 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic, when courts had postponed hearings and most of the staff were allowed to stay at home. The request claims that Kenez pointed out judge Kemal Selçuk Yalçın and prosecutor Can Tuncay as targets for terrorist groups, a common pretext used by the Turkish government to remove political opponents and civil society activists. Prosecutor Tuncay was accused of involvement in the death of teacher Gökhan Açıkkollu, who had been subjected to torture during detention in police headquarters in İstanbul. Judge Yalçın was the head of a panel of judges that had handed down life sentences to three prominent journalists including novelist Ahmet Altan and three other defendants on February 16, 2018. Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals later declined to uphold the aggravated life sentences. An İstanbul high criminal court again gave the defendants jail sentences of varying lengths. Among them were Fevzi Yazıcı and Yakup Şimşek, who were accused of sending implicit messages about a coup attempt that took place in Turkey on July 15, 2016 in a TV commercial run by Turkey’s best-selling and now-defunct Zaman daily almost a year before the coup attempt.
LEVENT KENEZ extradition request
The extradition request filed for Kenez by the İstanbul 36th High Criminal Court
“I was not surprised,” Kenez, who has been living in Stockholm since 2016, told Nordic Monitor, adding, “It’s no secret that the government of [President] Erdoğan has engaged in a campaign of going after its vocal critics in any way possible.”
“Turkey is not a free country where one can enjoy the right to due process, and the judiciary is not independent. Tens of thousands of people from all walks of life, not only journalists, are behind bars on fake and trumped-up terror charges,” Kenez said.
Kenez believes the government’s grounds for requesting his extradition are an admission of that. “I have six more pending court cases, in one of which I am accused of being a member of a terrorist organization. Is it not strange that Turkey wants me not because of that but for insulting civil servants? There is a case against me in which I am accused of insulting President Erdoğan. It is promising that Turkey finds judges and prosecutors to be more “salt of the earth” than the president.”
Kenez thinks government officials are definitely aware that it would be absurd if Turkey, the worst jailer of journalists in the world, wanted a critical journalist from Sweden, the country ranked highest worldwide in terms of press freedom, on baseless terror allegations.
Kenez was the former editor-in-chief of the Meydan daily, which was unlawfully shut down by the government in 2016. He was briefly detained during a police raid on its headquarters in İstanbul following a controversial coup attempt in 2016. A new arrest warrant was issued the day after his release. Kenez had to flee Turkey by crossing the Evros River to Greece in order to avoid the risk of persecution and arbitrary arrest.
Nordic Monitor previously revealed the alarming scope of clandestine operations carried out by the Erdoğan government targeting critical journalists who live in exile in Sweden, according to secret Turkish Foreign Ministry documents that confirm the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm spied on Swedish organizations and profiled exiled Turkish journalists.
Sweden’s high court recently rejected Turkey’s request for the extradition of 72-year-old Ragip Zarakolu, a journalist and publisher who has been standing trial since 2011 on terrorism charges based on a speech.
Turkey is ranked 154th out of 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a media freedom watchdog that describes Turkey as “the world’s biggest jailer of professional journalists.”
According to advocacy group the Stockholm Center for Freedom, which monitors press freedom in Turkey, 175 journalists are currently behind bars in Turkish prisons. The SCF data also show at least 168 journalists have been forced to live in exile.