Early on Thursday morning six Turkish nationals in Kosovo were detained, and according to both governments, deported to Turkey.
Turkish officials claim the men are members of the Gülen movement, a global Islamic network led by Fethullah Gülen, an ally-turned-enemy of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that Ankara accuses of having orchestrated the attempted coup in July 2016.
Gülen and Erdoğan had a violent split in 2013. Gülen’s followers, who had gained presence in various state bodies and some of whom allegedly committed abuses of power, have been extensively purged from their positions since the rift emerged and persecuted indiscriminately in Turkey and abroad, subjected to what critics call a witch hunt in violation of the rule of law.
The exact location of the detained men is unknown, and many of their family members and supporters believe they are being held in the Turkish embassy in Kosovo’s capital Pristina.
The tiny Balkan state’s prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj, president Hashim Thaci, speaker of parliament Kadri Veseli and foreign minister Behgjet Pacolli have all said they were unaware of the operation, which they condemned. Haradinaj ordered the immediate sacking of interior minister Flamur Sefaj and head of intelligence Driton Gashi.
“The bottom line is that we have no idea what happened to the six individuals and what will happen to their families,” said Human Rights Watch’s acting Eastern Europe and Balkans researcher Todor Gardos.
“I think the main issue here is that the security services seem to have been acting on their own.”
The six men haven’t been given access to their lawyers or families.
“I want to consult with my client. I have that right, and he has that right,” said Leutrim Syla, lawyer of detained Turkish national Cihan Özkan.
Syla said the interior ministry cancelled the men’s residence permits, which were valid until 2022, before they were detained by authorities wearing plain clothes.
“I don’t know how the president and prime minister of a country can’t know what’s happening,” said 18-year-old Riad Januzi, speaking to Ahval over the phone on Thursday night from Pristina’s airport, where dozens had gathered to protest. Januzi was one of the detained men’s students for two years.
“They were very good teachers,” he said. “We protested peacefully because that’s how they taught us.”
Five of the detained men are educators – general director of the Gülistan Education Institution Mustafa Erdem and vice director Yusuf Karabina in Pristina, and school principal Kahraman Demirez and teachers Cihan Özkan and Hasan Hüseyin Günakan in Gjakova, western Kosovo. The sixth detained man is cardiology professor Osman Karakaya.
The Gülen-linked Gülistan Educational Institution runs four Mehmet Akif elementary and high schools.
Nazmi Ulus, director of the Mehmet Akif college in Lipljan, near Pristina, told Ahval that vice director Karabina’s wife and son were with him when he was detained, and that his wife was assaulted during the incident.
“We can’t say it’s 100 percent secure here anymore,” Ulus said. “We’re all worried.”
Kosovo is home to at least 200 Gülen followers, he said.
This isn’t the first move against Turkey’s opponents in Kosovo. In December, a prosecutor withdrew his request to allow the extradition of Turkish citizen Uğur Toksoy after Toksoy was detained in October.
Thursday’s operation occurred while Turkish prime minister Binali Yıldırım was at a meeting in nearby Sarajevo, where he reportedly asked Bosnia to take stronger measures against Gülen supporters located there.
Meanwhile in Turkey, president Erdoğan said Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation, MİT, conducted the operation, and Turkish media reported that MİT had flown the men to Turkey on a private plane.
“We want to continue our work here, but we’re worried about our lives and security because the Erdoğan regime showed that it can conduct operations here,” Ulus said.
“The Erdoğan government sees the Balkans as an area where it can easily move around.”
Since the failed coup attempt, MİT has been hunting for so-called ‘Gülenists’ all over the world, leading to renditions in countries such as Myanmar, Kazakhstan and Malaysia, and illegal deportations from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and elsewhere.
“Depending on how the details emerge, this might be the most flagrant case that’s happened in Europe,” said Nate Schenkkan, project director for Freedom House’s Nations in Transit program.
He says Turkey’s global hunt is a cause for major concern.
“This is something I think people need to reckon with as an emerging threat to human rights.”
Schenkkan says Turkey’s substantial influence in the Balkans has grown since the coming to power of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002. This has been especially prevalent in struggling Kosovo, where Turkish firms have invested hundreds of millions of Euros in building the country’s airport, highways and electricity network.
He says the irony is that much of the engagement with Kosovo, as elsewhere, was done via the Gülen network, back when it was a close ally of the AKP.
“It wasn’t considered attending a Gülen school, it was attending a Turkish school.”
In Kosovo, a disputed, impoverished country that won its independence from Serbia in 2008, the rule of law is still very shaky, as it is in the wider Balkans. This makes the region susceptible to Ankara’s long arm.
“All of these countries, to varying degrees, have these kinds of vulnerabilities, whether it’s through corruption, or just being willing to derogate rule of law,” says Schenkkan.
“You can see in this case what a huge impact [Turkey’s international pursuit of its opponents] can have on the rule of law system in another country.”
Experts find it hard to believe that Pristina’s top ministers were in the dark about the operation.
“[Kosovo’s prime minister, president and parliamentary speaker] are all deeply embedded in the security apparatus, which developed out of the [Kosovo Liberation Army],” a paramilitary group active during the Kosovo War, Schenkkan said.
“The idea that all three of them don’t know when Turkish intelligence is going to do something like this in the country is hard to fathom.”
Parliamentary speaker Veseli was in fact head of Kosovo’s former intelligence service.
“My own sense is that this most recent development may actually be a ploy by the prime minister to take some of the heat off of himself, given the furious local and international reaction,” wrote Jasmin Mujanović, an expert on southeast European affairs and fellow with the EastWest Institute, in a message to Ahval.
“We’ll see whether the controversy over this incident might make regional governments more wary in the future.”
Schenkkan says extradition to Turkey would be very concerning given the many credible claims of torture and other forms of abuse of political prisoners there.
“One of the first principles in international law, including the European Convention on Human rights, is that you shouldn’t send people to a country where they may be tortured.”
Rights defender Gardos says the sacking of officials is only a first step for government accountability, and more must be done.
“There has to be a proper investigation into what happened.”