Countering Turkey’s harsh tactics against dissidents abroad

In a little-reported decision in May, the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission (OHCHR) ruled that, two years ago, the Turkish government unlawfully detained two Turkish men living in Malaysia, rendered them to Turkey without an extradition hearing and deprived them of their right to fair trial. The commission said the men had been held incommunicado for weeks and gave Turkey six months to respond regarding the measures it had taken to remedy the situation. 

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was among the fiercest critics of Saudi Arabia for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last October, yet his response to that brutal murder belied his government’s penchant for similar acts of repression abroad. 

Buoyed by the ease of modern communications and financial transfers, today’s global migrant flow has enabled the opponents of authoritarians to move more smoothly into exile, from where some seek to shape public opinion. In response, authoritarian leaders like Erdoğan often sanction the replication of domestic repression in extraterritorial spaces outside their legal jurisdiction. 

Turkey’s international campaign of repression against its diaspora centres on members of the Gülen movement, a global Islamist network of schools and businesses that Ankara blames for the failed 2016 coup and sees as a terrorist organisation (known as FETÖ). 

Turkish officials and pro-government media use the FETÖ label to discredit all manner of dissidents, Gülenist or not, including the former editor of secularist Cumhuriyet daily, Can Dündar, who was critical of the Islamist Gülen movement for years. Living in Germany due to fear of certain arrest in Turkey, Dündar and other high-profile exiles remain subject to harassment, surveillance, and threats on social media and in public.

To further harass and limit the mobility of political opponents abroad, Turkey abuses international legal tools. Dündar is one of many Turkish dissidents targeted by Interpol Red Notices requested by the Turkish government. Interpol explicitly forbids the use of Red Notices for political purposes, but in practice, limited oversight has enabled abuse, particularly by Turkey. Even when politically motivated Red Notices are identified and canceled, dissidents continue to experience difficulty traveling, working, and opening bank accounts.

Turkey may even embrace more extreme security tactics abroad. Outspoken Gülenist and professional basketball player Enes Kanter, who lives in the United States, reports being the target of abduction plans and has repeatedly expressed his fear of assassination.

As in Malaysia, Turkey also employs forced renditions that trample on human rights and arguably violate the sovereignty of other nations. Most Western states are skeptical of Turkey’s extradition requests -- the United States has repeatedly denied Turkey’s request to extradite Fethullah Gülen, citing a lack of evidence of his involvement in the coup attempt. But less developed nations have proven more willing to abet Turkey’s rendition schemes. Turkish intelligence agents have successfully forced the rendition of Turkish nationals from numerous countries, including Kosovo and Gabon last year, without judicial process. 

Diplomats and human rights groups are among those best placed to aid targets of political rendition, mainly by shining a light on the illegal acts and applying public pressure. Victims of extrajudicial, extraterritorial actions can submit complaints to the OHCHR, as the families of the Turkish men snatched in Malaysia did. If it finds unlawful behaviour, as in Malaysia, the commission pushes offending authorities to remedy their violations. Interpol can cancel abusive Red Notices, but similarly, cancellations are solely the result of victim complaints.

Experts, analysts and key officials should endeavour to develop more proactive counter measures to extraterritorial repression. The structure of Interpol makes it difficult to create a judicial review process that clears Red Notices of political motivation before they are issued, which means authoritarians will continue to abuse the system. Existing asylum processes are also too onerous to protect the majority of victims of extraterritorial repression. 

Countering extraterritorial repression needs to go beyond Interpol. Concerned national governments, in conjunction with human rights groups and the OHCHR, could build a register of potential victims of extraterritorial security, to be housed within the OHCHR or a newly created multinational organisation. The register could set up a simple online form for exiles and dissidents to apply for listing, as well as actively identify vulnerable exiles with the help of human rights groups.

The register could also be used to flag and scrutinise Red Notices and extradition requests as soon as they are issued to prevent arbitrary detention and rendition. By signalling to authoritarians that their pursuit of political opponents is actively tracked, the publication of the register would also likely deter the harassment and abduction of some targets.

In an effort to legitimise their extraterritorial aggression, Turkey and other authoritarian states employ rhetoric and official subterfuge to build a narrative that dissidents pose a grave threat. A reputable register of vulnerable exiles could form the basis of a counter-narrative that ensures the freedom and safety of exiles and dissidents everywhere.