Turkish or Not, Erdoğan’s Critics Face Severe Legal Challenges


Having long given up on the pretense of appearing acceptable to the EU, President Erdoğan of Turkey is now using Interpol to crush his real or perceived enemies, in what Angela Merkel has deemed an abuse of the international policing system. Erdoğan’s efforts have shown that he can effectively muzzle critics on a massive scale, both at home and abroad, targeting Turkish citizens and foreigners alike.

Interpol Abuses

Salih Muslim, a former leader of the PYD (Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party) was detained on February 25th in Prague. For Erdoğan, there is now an opportunity to recreate the infamous 1999 capture and subsequent show trial of PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) leader Abdullah Öcalan. Should the Czech government deport Muslim to Turkey (despite his Syrian citizenship), it would be a tremendous gift of propaganda to Erdoğan, as Muslim is accused of being the mastermind behind the YPG (People’s Protection Units), with whom Turkey is currently at war in Northern Syria.

Turkish-German intellectual Doğan Akhanlı was similarly arrested in Spain, though unlike Salih Muslim, his crimes were never even defined. Akhanlı, who had his Turkish citizenship stripped in 1998, has long been critical of the Turkish State. Like Muslim, Akhanlı’s extradition to Turkey would have given Turkey a figurehead with which it could propagate the image that it is crushing its enemies. Akhanlı was released last October after receiving strong statements of support from the German government.

Little Lawrences

More recently, Deniz Yücel was released on February 17, after a year in Turkish prison. While Yücel was freed, three journalists were given lifetime sentences; most disconcertingly, one of the sentenced had previously been slated for release the following day, in a testimony to the arbitrary nature of justice in Erdoğan’s Turkey. Then there is the case of Peter Steudtner, another German national. In July 2017, Steudtner was arrested on suspicious terror charges along with nine other human rights advocates in what was a widespread crackdown on activist journalists in Turkey. That Steudtner is not Turkish, likely played on the growing sentiment that foreigners are against the Turkish state.

Erdoğan has never been one to shy away from using xenophobia as a means to rally support at home. Consider the case of Dutch journalist Fréderike Geerdink, one of the world’s foremost Kurdish experts, and a longtime resident of Turkey’s Kurdish region. Geerdink was expelled from Turkey on September 15, 2015, on legally dubious charges. In describing foreign Kurdish experts, Erdoğan uses faux-anti-colonial rhetoric aimed to foster sympathy from Western European leftists. He brands them as modern day «voluntary Lawrences of Arabia, disguised as journalists, religious men, writers and terrorists».

A Climate of Fear

In Switzerland, two cases have created an atmosphere of insecurity within the Turkish community: In May 2017, three Kurds originating from Basel were arrested in Turkey on questionable charges, with only one of them having participated in demonstrations against Erdoğan in Switzerland. It was revealed that a police officer from Basel who happened to be an ardent supporter of Erdoğan had passed on police intelligence about Swiss critics to Turkish authorities. It is unclear if and how these cases are linked.
There is no return to normality with Erdoğan. Every policy maker dealing with Turkey should bear in mind how it treats its critics. The world needs to take clear steps to secure the safety of those critical to the Turkish government, be they Turks or foreigners. It is also important to note that while Turks living in the EU have European governments to support them, Turks without a second citizenship have no such luxury.