A plot to kill a critical Turkish journalist living in Denmark by a clandestine group tied to the Turkish government exposes the sheer hypocrisy of the autocratic regime of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been driving a political campaign to exploit the outrageous murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.
Hasan Cücük, a veteran Turkish reporter, who has been in Denmark since the 90s, had to be rushed to a safe place by the Danish Security and Intelligence Service (Politiets Efterretningstjeneste or PET) last year, after a serious threat to his life was detected. The threat, described by authorities as of “political nature”, is believed to be linked to a group contracted by the clandestine services of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT). The intercept by PET was handled at the highest level and a decision was eventually made to protect the safety of the journalist.
This is hardly surprising given the fact that two Turkish officials, disguised under diplomatic cover, planned to abduct a critic of the Turkish government in Switzerland, prompting an investigation by Swiss prosecutors, who later issued an arrest warrant against them.
Cücük, a 46-year old reporter, who has worked in journalism for over 25 years, became a target on 19March, 2014 when he posed a hardball question to a then Turkish president Abdullah Gül. During a joint press event with then Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the journalist asked the Turkish president in Copenhagen to comment on a vicious hate campaign pursued by Erdoğan, then serving as Prime Minister, against the US-based Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen. Erdoğan launched a series of public attacks on the elderly Muslim cleric, an advocate of interfaith dialogue, for having met with Pope John Paul II in 1998 and called him all kind of names ranging from “being a traitor” to “hollow preacher” and “virus”. Cücük asked the Turkish president how that vile and hateful language in the Turkish government’s narrative stands in contrast to Islamophobia, for which the same government claims to be battling against and criticizing European governments for doing so little to deal with it. Gül dodged the question but the journalist himself became a target of hate and a slander campaign the next day in Turkey’s pro-government media.
It was not just a hardball question that put journalist Cücük in the crosshairs of the Erdoğan regime. There are other, perhaps more compelling reasons, to make him a target. Cücük was flagged by Turkey as a high-profile critic because of his vocal and quite popular writings on social media, especially on Twitter, where he often posted messages critical of the Erdoğan regime. With crafty and smart punchlines that quickly went viral on social media, he has been among the key drivers in shaping the public perception of the Turkish government. At one time, he was listed 139th among influential Twitter users with some 8 million users in Turkey, according to the now-defunct Turkish tracking site StarMetre.
In early 2016, Erdoğan’s government secured a warrant from a partisan judge who ordered Twitter to block his account in Turkey so that his messages wouldn’t be accessible for users located in Turkey. Unashamedly, Twitter complied with that decision.
According to Twitter’s latest Transparency Report that covered the period between July 1, 2017 and Dec.31, 2017, Turkey issued 466 court orders for removal requests, while the number for the rest of the world combined was 47. In other words, 91 percent of censorship requests in the form of court judgements came from only one country – Turkey. This shows how the Turkish judiciary has been politicised and became a subordinate to executive branch in Turkey.
People using VPNs or other mechanisms to bypass restrictions are still able to read Cücük, whose Twitter messages were accessible for users that do not use IP addresses located in Turkey. To turn up the heat on Cücük as part of the growing intimidation campaign, Turkish prosecutors, İsmail Uçar and Murat Çağlak, handpicked by Erdoğan’s government to run the persecution against critics, with blatant abuse of criminal justice system, ordered the detention of him along with 34 journalists on August 30, 2016. The list included prominent journalists like Selçuk Gültaşlı, Zaman daily’s long-time Bureau-chief in Brussels, Erhan Başyurt, former editor-in-chief of Bugün daily, as well as exiled journalists Yavuz Baydar and Ergun Babahan, who manage Ahval news outlet, which is bankrolled by Haitham El-Zobaidi, the publisher, who owns the majority share in London-based Arab Publishing House.
The prosecutors asked for long jail sentences for the detained journalists, who did not manage to get out of Turkey and were placed in pre-trial detentions. For over a year, they were kept in jail without charge, indictment and trial. When they were finally indicted, the only evidence the government was able to put out to support terror and coup charges was published articles, TV commentaries in debate programs and Twitter messages. That was followed with a sham trial in a kangaroo court and journalists were convicted and sentenced for jail sentences including aggravated life-sentences in jail. Cücük’s file was put aside because authorities could not detain him in Denmark. The procedures would start when he was placed in custody and that prevented him from travelling to Turkey even to attend the funeral of his mother-in-law, who passed away in May 2018 and his brother, who passed away in July 2018.
That did not scare Cücük either and he continued to be quite vocal in his criticism of the Turkish government and kept writing about details of human rights violations, including the systematic torture and ill-treatment in Turkish prisons and detention centers. The last threat was quite different from the ones he had encountered so far when he got a call from the police on January 6, 2017 at 18:15 hours. The caller identified himself as a Copenhagen police officer and asked the journalist about his current location, stressing the urgency of the matter. Cücük said he was at home and the caller said that officers would be there in five minutes.
Two PET intelligence officers dressed in civilian clothing showed up at his door exactly five minutes later, identified themselves with their badges, and asked permission to come inside. In the living room, the journalist was told about the death threat against him.
“Some people want to kill you over the weekend. We need to move you to a safe location”, they said.
Cücük’s initial reaction was that this must be a joke but quickly realised that this was no laughing matter. The officers explained that the Turkish journalist is well known by the Danish authorities and they would not allow any harm to come to him in Denmark.
Everything was happening so quickly and neither Cücük nor his wife were prepared for this extraction. Their son was away with a family friend and they had to pack up quickly. He called the family friend to drop his son at the entrance of the apartment, as opposed to the usual parking spot because the intelligence officers felt it may not be safe for him to go outside without an escort. The family rushed out of the house and left all electronic gadgets, including cell phones at home, to avoid being traced by Turkish government thugs. Danish security did not take any chances. Three separate teams were coordinating their movements when they were placed in a van. They set out for a journey to an unknown location with an escort vehicle trailing them as security. The van slowed down at the gas station but did not stop, moved to an opposite direction after a while and changed courses to make sure they were not followed.
They stopped before a hotel where a man greeted them and took them to their room. Cücük was handed an old Nokia phone and provided with an emergency phone number to call just in case. They were asked to not use credit cards and a cash allowance of 4,000 was given to cover their expenses in the meantime. The only call Cücük managed to make before the security protocols kicked in was to his mother, whom she told that he and the family went out for a vacation to take advantage of the deeply discounted rate on prices and that mobile phones would not work well at the vacation spot. Cücük who used to call his mother once in every two days told her that he would be able to call her back when he gets back
The Danish security’s initial plan was to keep the journalist and his family for only two days until they could make a thorough assessment of the situation and take counter-measures. That did not pan out the way the authorities planned, and the investigation got prolonged. Cücük was not allowed to leave the hotel for fear of somebody spotting him, after all there were Turks living in the town where they were holed up and somebody in the diaspora might recognise this well-known Turkish journalist. Soon after, they were moved to a summer house in another city and handed over i-Pads for the kids to play and pass the time. Cücük needed to check in twice a day and security visited them once in every two days in this house.
While the authorities continue to dig in further, they discovered new leads and the investigation dragged on longer than the usual. In the meantime, they kept apologising to Cücük for taking too long to probe, sort out, identify and neutralise the threat against his life. On Jan.20, 2017 at 08.05 hours, he finally got a much-expected call and was told that they will be taken back to their own homes. “The threat against you was removed and now you can go back to your normal life” the police told him. His questions on the nature, scope and extent of the threat were not answered, except for the fact that authorities simply said, “the threat was of a political nature”.
The assassination threat against the Turkish journalist scrambled the entire department in Danish security service that monitors this kind of threat and seeks to resolve them. Ultimately, the decision was made at the senior department level to move Cücük to a safe house and handle the threat. Apparently, many in the Turkish diaspora were interviewed as the security officials kept mapping out who was involved in Erdoğan’s long arm in Denmark, to what extent they are willing to go, and what methods could they possibly make use of in order to intimidate Erdoğan’s critics.
For my part, I can relate to the story as the Swedish police offered me a safe location for a brief interim period in 2017, when death threats against me on social media intensified in the aftermath of serious of articles, which I wrote to expose the Turkish government’s clandestine links to jihadist groups. Erdoğan’s propogandist Cem Kücük, an operative connected to Turkish intelligence, even appeared on a TV program and said that my home address in Stockholm is known to the Turkish authorities and publicly asked the Turkish intelligence to assassinate me in Sweden. I brushed aside most of this as noise and unwanted clutter to intimidate me from continuing to speak up. There was no direct and immediate threat that would force me to seek extreme measures, and I did not want to place my family through such an ordeal of going through an isolationist period. I also did not get a feeling that there was a specific threat that was intercepted by Swedish security services or otherwise they would be putting a rather compelling argument as the Danish security did in Cücük’s case. I would have acted differently otherwise.
Unfortunately, this is the challenging environment many exiled Turkish journalists have to endure abroad. They became the target of vicious defamation campaigns and sustain all kinds of harassment tactics including threats against their relatives back in Turkey.
It takes a lot of courage for journalists like Cücük to continue writing and speaking up. He told me that he won’t be deterred from doing what he loves doing.
These journalists need to be supported and their voices must be amplified for the world to hear about what is going on in Turkey.
It makes me sick to my stomach when I see Erdoğan government trying to champion for press freedom on the back of the Khashoggi murder case. Let’s remember that this is the man who has locked up 239 journalists as of today and is searching to detain 148 more journalists, who try to build new lives abroad in peace and away from Erdoğan’s long arm.