With its ‘global purge,’ Ankara puts Interpol in a tight spot

Turkey stands out among the Western allies by far the least tolerant of peaceful dissent. 

Although for various reasons it doesn’t seem to have registered with democratic governments, Turkey stands out among the Western allies by far the least tolerant of peaceful dissent and the most aggressive against those who disagree with the views of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The oppression has long spilt over across Turkey’s borders. The government and its security apparatus attempt to engage two main tools to assert its repressive will: First, by applying the measures through the red bulletins sent to Interpol, it tries to have all dissidents, mainly Kurds and Gulenists, extradited to Turkey from across the world. Second, it has turned the arrests of foreign nationals within its borders into a kind of a routine, leading to the coining of hostage diplomacy.

The remarkable part is that these unending practices continue as the allies of Turkey watch “from the balcony,” as one furious Kurdish politician active in a centre-left party in the European Union said recently.

In this context, the arrest in the Czech Republic of Saleh Muslim, the ex-leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian Kurdish party that collaborated with the Western coalition to combat the Islamic State (ISIS) and jihadist armed groups, should have been an eye-opener.

That he was arrested by the demand of the AKP government came as a shock to the organisers of the elite international conference, whose name coincidentally included the term “security” and was an embarrassment for the VIP-level participants from the major countries of the West.

Muslim was released but the damage was done. Prague will probably be abandoned as an option for future meetings of think-tanks, considered a “non-secure” venue. In any case, invited guests will have to think twice about going there should they feel threatened by the Turkish government.

Yet, no matter what, the trend continues. Deutsche Welle reported that Ankara has sent a formal request to Stockholm for Muslim, who was allegedly seen in Sweden, to be arrested and extradited to Turkey, although Muslim is not a Turkish citizen. It was not clear whether Sweden had responded to the Turkish request.

Cynics may associate such moves with Erdogan’s attempts to win votes for the upcoming elections. He banks on presumed propaganda value from the arrest and imprisonment of a major figure.

This trend, however, has an effect far beyond developments in Turkey. Trying to utilise the Interpol system in favour of persecuting the Turkish and Kurdish dissidents abroad by branding them all “terrorists” and “accomplices of terrorists” is a toxic pattern that can be copied by similarly intolerant regimes intent on silencing their opposition.

It was reported that soon after the attempted coup in Turkey in July 2016, Ankara sent out requests for approximately 60,000 Turkish citizens abroad to be rounded up by Interpol and extradited. The requests were rejected but that did not deter Ankara from pursuing its endeavours even if this time on a smaller scale.

Now, Ankara and Interpol seem at odds about whether the red bulletins for arrest were abusive. Recently, the pro-government Turkish daily Sabah reported that Interpol “suspended” more than 50 such bulletins, which include lists of people wanted by Ankara. If true, this is a sign that the international security mechanisms seem keen on drawing lines that are not to be crossed.

Yet, given the oppressive frenzy in Turkey, such arm-wrestling is likely to continue. The reason for this may be that most EU countries either watch what is called “Turkey’s global purge” from the balcony or are too timid to alienate Ankara because of their fear of the jihadist threat. The European Union’s appeasement policies are, no doubt, perceived by Ankara as a weakness to be used.

However, the arrest of foreign nationals, including an American pastor and German citizens, has deepened concern.

”Turkish hostage-taking has become one of the most pressing problems in relations between Ankara and its Western allies. It is something that everyone knows is happening, but political leaders and diplomats are reluctant to call it by its name,” Nate Schenkkan, a director with Freedom House, wrote in Foreign Policy.

What raised the eyebrows was the way Deniz Yucel, a German-Turkish journalist working for Die Welt, was released after what he described as a “dirty deal” between Ankara and Berlin. (He was unlawfully held for a year mostly in solitary confinement.)

Reports said there are at least five more Germans, three Americans and an unknown number of Dutch dual citizens held in Turkish jails. Their situation apparently causes not only concern but also extra caution in the West’s relations with its Turkish ally.

Most recently, the arrest of two Greek soldiers patrolling the Turkish-Greek border and its aftermath showed that Ankara would insist on the pattern of what Schenkkan called “hostage policies.”

Turkey asked for the extradition of eight Turkish officers accused of taking part in the attempted coup as a swap deal, which Athens fiercely refused. The rift is an issue for the European Union, NATO and the United Nations, with an unknown outcome.

How long this behavioural pattern will go on depends very much on how — or if — Turkey’s Western allies will redefine their relations with the ruling AKP government.