In a first, Turkey’s intelligence service snatches six suspected Erdogan critics in Kosovo
WASHINGTON - In the first commando operation of its kind in Europe, the Turkish intelligence service arrested six suspected critics of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Kosovo — without the knowledge of Kosovo’s prime minister.
Erdogan said agents of the National Intelligence Organisation, known by its Turkish initials MIT, captured five teachers and a doctor, all Turkish nationals with valid residency in Kosovo, on March 29 and took them to Turkey “like parcels.” Pictures published by Turkish media showed the handcuffed suspects standing before Turkish flags in an unknown location.
The six men are said to be members of the movement of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based cleric accused by the Erdogan government of orchestrating a failed coup attempt in Turkey in 2016. Gulen denies the charges.
Since the putsch, Erdogan has cracked down on the Gulen networks in Turkey’s state apparatus, firing 150,000 officials from the military, the judiciary and the bureaucracy and sending approximately 50,000 people to jail. Turkey has asked countries all over the world to extradite Gulen followers. Several countries, especially in Asia and Africa, expelled Gulen supporters, often teachers who work at schools run by the movement.
Government spokesman Bekir Bozdag told the Haberturk television channel that covert operations by Turkish intelligence agents in 18 countries had netted approximately 80 Gulen supporters and returned them to Turkey. He did not name the countries involved but said operations would continue. The Pristina incident marked the first time that Ankara picked up suspected government critics in Europe.
Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin denied that Turkey was involved in “illegal acts” but rights activists say the Kosovo case is worrying. “This is a dramatic example of lawlessness,” Andrew Gardner, a senior adviser and researcher on Turkey for Amnesty International, said in an interview. “It is symptomatic of a situation where the rule of law is not respected.”
Gardner said Turkey was doing itself a disservice with commando operations such as the one in Kosovo because they will make courts in other countries less likely to extradite suspected government critics. Turkey had to show that suspects could expect a fair trial after an extradition.
The West has been reluctant to act on Turkish demands to extradite Gulen and his followers. In the United States, authorities said Ankara has not presented enough evidence linking the 76-year-old cleric, who lives in Pennsylvania, to violent crimes. EU countries also pointed to a lack of evidence.
Germany hosts hundreds of Turkish dissidents from the Gulen movement and other groups. Turkey recently issued an additional arrest warrant for Can Dundar, a prominent journalist condemned as a “spy” by Erdogan who had fled to Berlin.
Turkey said the rejection of extradition requests by its Western partners amounts to support for terrorism.
There have been indications for some time that Turkey is trying to extend its grip to EU countries, given that extradition pleas fall on deaf ears there. Last year, Enes Kanter, a Turkish player with the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder in the United States and a known Erdogan critic, had his passport revoked during a visit to Romania. Kanter was able to return to the United States after the NBA and the US State Department intervened. The athlete said his political views about Erdogan, whom he called the “Hitler of our century,” were reasons his passport was cancelled.
Also last year, Turkey asked Spain to extradite Dogan Akhanli, a German writer of Turkish descent, in what Akhanli called a “manhunt” by Ankara. He returned to Germany from Spain after several months. In another case that raised eyebrows in Europe, prosecutors in Switzerland said in March they were investigating whether Turkish diplomats planned to drug and kidnap a Swiss-Turkish businessman as part of the crackdown after the coup attempt.
The Kosovo abductions were executed without the knowledge of Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, who fired his interior minister and intelligence chief after the incident. “One cannot just snatch people from Kosovo,” Haradinaj told the Voice of America’s Albanian service. “This was a sort of a theft of people from Kosovo.”
Erdogan said Haradinaj would “pay” for his response to the MIT operation. Unlike Haradinaj, Kosovar President Hashim Thaci appeared to defend the renditions, saying the Gulen supporters were suspected of crimes.
The incident could have repercussions for relations of both Kosovo and Turkey with the European Union. Both countries want to join the bloc but face resistance.
“The arrest and subsequent deportation of six Turkish nationals legally residing in Kosovo raise questions about the respect of the due process of law,” said Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for EU foreign affairs and security policy. “The rule of law is a fundamental principle of the European Union.”