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Turkey Turned into an Open Prison

The arbitrary practice of seizing and revoking passports, or denying the issue of new ones for critics, opponents and dissidents, as well as for their spouses, children and relatives in Turkey by the government of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has turned at least half a million people into captives condemned to live in an open prison, where the right to travel freely has been unlawfully restricted, along with expanded limitations on other fundamental human rights.

Although president Erdogan announced on 9 July 2018 that his government would lift the travel ban, that has been imposed since 2016 on nearly 200,000 people, who are relatives of perceived critics of the regime, in practice nothing has much changed. My sources tell me that some of those who managed to obtain passports from local population registry offices after Erdogan’s declaration, were still denied the right to board a plane by the police when they got to the airport. In some of the worst cases, they were detained on the spot and thrown into overcrowded prisons, where torture and ill-treatment were widely practiced.

In an unprecedented persecution, Erdogan’s government has been implementing what one may call guilt by association, either through blood or marriage and punishing critics ranging from journalists to human rights defenders by going after their spouses, children and other relatives. This unlawful administrative decision, that was not subject to any effective challenge in the courts, or that faced no real judicial scrutiny, clearly violates Turkish constitution. Moreover, it infringes upon the obligations Turkey has under the international conventions to which it is party. Since the rule of law has been effectively suspended and the judiciary was totally subordinated to whims and emotions of one man, no domestic remedy is unfortunately left in the country to tackle such widespread human rights abuses.

The dual nationals who have been living in Turkey were also caught up in this wide net cast by the government to crack down on government critics. In many instances, they were denied the right to leave Turkey, if they are lucky enough to stay out of jail of course. The Turkish government does not recognise the nationality of foreign countries in such cases and treats them as Turkish in order to send a chilling message beyond Turkish borders, with the flagrant abuse of the criminal justice system for political goals. I know several cases where European Union citizens were denied the right to exit Turkey and are afraid of telling their stories publicly, in order to not invite further wrath of the Erdogan regime.

That is why so many Turks dare to cross Turkish borders illegally, mainly to neighboring Greece, en route to other destinations in Europe and beyond, to escape the persecution of the Erdogan regime. They risk their own lives, as well as the lives of their family members, to make this dangerous journey, as they have apparently lost all hope of sustaining a decent life in their homeland. The profile of the people who flee Turkey tells the tale a lot about who has been targeted in this witch-hunt. They include journalists, academics, NGO workers, politicians, teachers, judges, former members of law enforcement officers, government employees and others who had built their lives in Turkey, with good educational backgrounds and until recently had enjoyed great careers. They leave everything behind to embark on a journey that promises not much other than providing a safe sanctuary, at least for the time being, from the persecution.

Their terrible saga is not over yet as the long arm of Erdogan’s government keeps harassing Turkish political asylum seekers and continues to abuse international mechanisms to try to make their lives miserable in their new homes as well. The most striking pattern we have detected in this abusive behavior of the Turkish government, is the filing of fraudulent claims with Interpol mechanisms for lost passports or travel documents that were held by regime critics. The case of Enes Kanter, who is part of the New York Knicks team is representative of how such abuse by Turkey can victimise a famous NBA player. In May 2017, Kanter, who is also a leading critic of the Erdogan government, was stranded in an airport in Romania after Turkey filed a cancelled passport request with Interpol. He was let go after the US government intervened on his behalf.

Flooded with a huge number of such requests from Turkey, Interpol is forced to take action. It has not only removed the cases from its database but has also suspended the authorisation of the Turkish Interpol section from entering new filings in the system. After all the Interpol mechanisms were designed to hunt down real criminals, not to punish Turkish government’s political opponents or any other governments for that matter. Earlier this year, Turkish Interior Ministry acknowledged difficulties in filing requests with Interpol after reports suggested that cases from Turkey were rejected in big numbers.

For sure, abusing Interpol mechanisms for political goals is a clear violation of Interpol’s own constitution. Interpol did not accept the Turkish government’s claims that the Gülen movement, a civic group that has no connection to any violence or terrorism and yet targeted viciously by the Turkish regime, is a terrorist organisation. The same precautionary measures against Turkey’s fraudulent or frivolous filing requests were also applied to the Kurdish political movement that suffers greatly at the hands of Erdogan’s government. Both the German and Swedish governments have raised the abuse of Interpol by Turkey, after their own citizens of Turkish descent were briefly detained in Spain on a Red Notice warrant issued by Turkey through Interpol.

Free and democratic countries must confront Erdogan’s regime and thwart his government’s practices that hunt down critics by abusing international mechanisms. They must also help alleviate the suffering of people by offering them sanctuary and grant safe haven, as the right to dissent has to a great extent been stifled by the Erdogan regime. Perhaps the victimised people of Turkey also need a modern version of Schindler, who would help critics and opponents move abroad and facilitate their travel in order for them to escape the hellish nightmare they suffer under the iron-grip of this one-man regime.

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