Kenyan silence over Turkish kidnapping of Gulen relative raises questions

The silence of African capitals over the kidnapping of Selahaddin Gulen from Kenya reflects the willingness of Nairobi to be an accomplice against refugees and asylum seekers. It also shows the growing clout of Turkey in Africa, experts say.
Tuesday 08/06/2021
Selahattin Gulen, a nephew of US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, stands between Turkish flags in this photo provided by Turkish intelligence service, on Monday, May 31, 2021, in Ankara, Turkey. (AP)
Selahattin Gulen, a nephew of US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, stands between Turkish flags in this photo provided by Turkish intelligence service, on Monday, May 31, 2021, in Ankara, Turkey. (AP)

NAIROBI – How did a foreign citizen disappear from Kenya’s police headquarters and end up under arrest in Turkey, despite a court order banning his extradition? Why did Nairobi and other African capitals remain silent over the breach of Kenya’s sovereignty?

A week after it emerged that Selahaddin Gulen, whose uncle is a longtime foe of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had been forcibly returned to his country, Kenya has remained silent on the abduction and any role it might have played.

Rights activists say the incident has put the spotlight on Kenya’s history under President Uhuru Kenyatta of ignoring court orders and collaborating with foreign security agencies.

But the silence of African capitals over the kidnapping of  Selahaddin Gulen from Kenya also reflects the growing clout of Turkey in Africa, experts say.

Ankara has in recent years expanded it diplomatic, economic and military presence over the continent. It has developed a wide support network that is willing to cover up its trails in covert operations, add the experts.

Since 2016, Turkey has arrested tens of thousands of people suspected of having links with US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, who is accused of masterminding a failed coup in 2016 that left hundreds dead.  Gulen has denied the accusations.

According to court documents filed in Kenya, his nephew Selahaddin Gulen, 30, a US permanent resident, travelled to the country on October 17 where he was arrested at the airport after clearing immigration.

Ankara had sent out an alert to Nairobi saying that Gulen was wanted for “child molestation” and asking that he be extradited to Turkey.

His lawyers said that the alleged child molestation case was “tried and concluded with an acquittal of the applicant in 2018”.

They argued that “the Turkish government is on a protracted campaign to prosecute and persecute the applicant together with his family”, saying that Selahaddin’s brother, sister and 62 other family members were currently imprisoned.

“Their only crime was that they were related to one Fethullah Gulen,” said a court filing.

The preacher, who lives in Pennsylvania, insists he is the head of a peaceful network of charities and companies and denies any links to the 2016 coup bid.

In March, a Kenyan judge issued orders barring authorities from deporting Selahaddin, who was also in possession of an asylum seeker pass, to Turkey.

— ‘Egregiously seized’ —

Under his bail conditions, Selahaddin had to report to the police every Monday.

According to an urgent court application filed by his lawyer Jotham Arwa on May 5, it was when he had presented himself at the main police headquarters in Nairobi two days previously that he was last seen.

Arwa accused Kenyan authorities of having “forcefully, wantonly and egregiously seized and detained the applicant incommunicado” in a “hasty and clumsy attempt to circumvent the law” and send him back to Turkey.

Turkish state news agency Anadolu said Selahaddin was brought back to Turkey by intelligence agents.

Police and immigration officials have not responded to numerous requests by the media for comment.

Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher in East Africa, Otsieno Namwaya, told AFP that in Kenya the narrative is that he was kidnapped by Turkish agents outside the police headquarters.

“Even if that were true, how did he get out of the country?”

“How do foreign agents manage to grab someone and go out with him and take him to JKIA (international airport) and fly him outside the country? Without anyone asking questions? How can the government keep quiet on that issue?”

Namwaya said HRW planned to send a letter to the government demanding an explanation.

“The Kenyatta administration has become very notorious for collaborating with foreign security agencies and kidnapping foreign nationals who are in Kenya for security reasons,” he said.

— Previous kidnaps —

Namwaya recalled the case of two prominent critics of the South Sudanese government, lawyer Dong Samuel Luak and opposition member Aggrey Idri, who were kidnapped from Nairobi in January 2017, just days after a court blocked their deportation to South Sudan.

The United Nations said in 2019 it was “highly probable” the two men, who were taken back to Juba, had been executed by security agents.

Namwaya said HRW has heard many reports of Rwandans, Burundians, Congolese and Ethiopians being picked up in Kenya and forcibly returned to their homes, in many cases with the involvement of Kenyan security forces.

“The hostility of the Kenya government towards asylum seekers and refugees is just astonishing,” he said.

“The government as it is now doesn’t respect the courts at all.”

Last week, the Law Society of Kenya slammed a “continuous onslaught on the judiciary by the executive” after Kenyatta criticised the judiciary for recently blocking his attempts to reform the constitution.

Kenyatta also brought up a particularly sore issue, the nullification by the Supreme Court of his election victory in 2017 over widespread irregularities.

Kenyatta later won the re-run which the opposition boycotted.

Kenya and Turkey have close ties, but in 2016 Nairobi refused to close schools linked to the Gulenist movement despite pressure from Ankara.

In 1999, Turkish services arrested the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, in Kenya. Ocalan remains imprisoned in Turkey.