Pandemic risk in Turkey’s prisons adds to families’ worries.
On March 29, 2018, secretly and hastily, Kosovo Police took six Turkish nationals from their homes, cars or workplaces and transported them to Prishtina International Airport; from there, they were flown to Turkey. The clandestine operation was part of a cooperation between Kosovo’s and Turkey’s intelligence agencies — and it was shrouded in controversy.
Political leaders in Kosovo initially seemed confused as to whether they should be taking credit for the operation, or distancing themselves from it as anger and condemnations from citizens, human rights activists and foreign states became clear.
The events would ultimately lead to the removal of Kosovo’s minister of internal affairs and its head of intelligence. A parliamentary investigation into the affair would find dozens of violations of Kosovo’s legislation, while more than 20 members of the police are facing criminal investigation.
But two years after the deportations, the six men remain incarcerated — some still awaiting trial — in Turkey’s overcrowded prisons, which human rights groups warn are a particular concern during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
And families of the deportees are still awaiting any form of justice.
From teachers to ‘terrorists’
At around 7 a.m. on that fateful day, as the arrests took place, it was very unclear what was happening; gradually, reports began to filter through that a number of teachers had been arrested.
By 10 a.m., as the media continued to ask questions, official responses were still inconclusive.
“The Police are conducting an operation,” Kosovo Police spokesperson Baki Kelani told BIRN. “[The public] will be informed on time of further details.”
About three hours later, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) issued a press release stating that “the residence permits [of the Turkish nationals] have been revoked” on security grounds and that the “further residency of these citizens is considered illegal.”
Students, alumni and former colleagues of the Turkish teachers soon gathered in Prishtina in protest; such protests would continue in the hours ahead as institutions painted a confused picture about what had taken place, and the whereabouts of the men remained unclear.
Students and colleagues of the teachers quickly gathered in protest after the six men were arrested, demanding their release. Photo: Jack Butcher / K2.0.
The following night, family members and supporters gathered at the entrance to the airport in Prishtina, demanding transparency, after rumors circulated that the men were being held in an old airport hanger. It was subsequently confirmed that the men had in fact been deported to Turkey just hours after their arrests.
By now, both Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj and President Hashim Thaçi claimed not to have been aware of the operation and Haradinaj had announced the sacking of the Minister of Internal Affairs, Flamur Sefaj, and the head of the Kosovo Intelligence Agency (KIA), Driton Gashi. The next day, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, gave a speech condemning the dismissals and thanking Thaçi for the deportations.
The six deported men were affiliated with the movement led by Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gülen, who is in exile in the U.S. Since the 2016 attempted coup in Turkey, Erdoğan has designated Gülen’s movement the “Fethullahist Terrorist Organization” and has undertaken wide ranging measures to clampdown on those he perceives as opponents; Gülen had denied any involvement in the coup attempt.
Cihan Özkan, Kahraman Demirez, Hasan Hüseyin Günakan, Mustafa Erdem, Osman Karakaya, and Yusuf Karabina, all of whom had family and jobs in Kosovo, are now being held in Turkey.
Amongst the many controversies surrounding the whole affair, Hasan Hüseyin Günakan was reportedly deported by mistake because institutions had issued no decision to deport him. The paperwork had instead been issued for Hasan Hüseyin Demir who, according to his lawyers, is now in a European country, where he has been granted asylum.
Families and lawyers say they were never officially told the whereabouts of the six men and that they have not been allowed to speak to them. Kosovo Police told the deportees’ lawyers that the reason for their arrest was KIA’s assessment that the six Turkish men were a risk to security, an accusation strongly refuted by family members.
The unsanitary and overcrowded conditions in Turkey’s prisons make them a potential hotbed for infection.
Meanwhile, the deportations, with no judicial process, to a state where the men face a “serious risk of torture,” have been heavily condemned by global human rights organizations.
Speaking in the name of family members, Hasan Hüseyin Günakan’s son Mustafa, told K2.0 that at the end of 2019, Özkan and Karakaya were both sentenced by the Turkish courts to seven years and six months in prison; Demirez was sentenced to eight years and nine months; and Günakan to eight years, a month and 15 days.
Echoing the many criticisms of Turkey’s judicial system from human rights groups and international observers, Mustafa Günakan says that none of the men received a fair trial.
“Not a single piece of evidence was provided for the accusations,” he says. “The sentences given in trials are based on assumptions rather than evidence.”
Meanwhile, Karabina and Erdem are amongst the many political prisoners in Turkey languishing in detention as they still await trial two years later.
In the midst of the current global pandemic, family members say they are particularly concerned about the health of their loved ones, as COVID-19 cases in Turkey rise at an alarming rate and the unsanitary and overcrowded conditions in Turkey’s prisons make them a potential hotbed for infection.
Amnesty International and other human rights organizations that monitor Turkey’s justice institutions have called on the country’s authorities to “use this opportunity to immediately release unjustly imprisoned people” from prisons where their health cannot be guaranteed.
“Thousands of people are behind bars for simply exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Now they are also faced with an unprecedented risk to their health,” reads a joint statement issued last week.
In response to the health threat, Turkey’s authorities are looking to release almost one third of the country’s approximately 300,000 prisoners early. However while a new draft law foresees the release of those convicted of non-premeditated murder and organized crime, it does not include political prisoners, such as the six men deported from Kosovo.
Playing cat and mouse
The mens’ families remain in Kosovo. Some have applied for asylum and are going through the final procedures to get Refugee status.
All the while, they are battling Kosovo’s institutions in the courts.
Lawyer for the families, Urim Vokshi, has sued MIA for revoking the residence permits, Kosovo Police for issuing the deportation orders and the Appeals Commision on Foreigners (ACF) for refusing to annul the deportation decisions. However the lawsuits have been contested at every stage by government lawyers, and are currently stalled in the courts.
K2.0 has analyzed 16 of the most recent court rulings in relation to the deportations.
The Basic Court and the Court of Appeals has continuously ruled that the decisions were not based “on a single piece of concrete evidence” and “have such flaws as a result of which their legality cannot be considered.”
In some of the cases, judges noted that the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ paperwork did not include the name of the person who signed them and did not include required protocol numbers.
Vokshi says that when reading such reasonings, the institutions should annul their decisions. However the decisions to remove the residence permits, as well as the deportation orders, remain in place.
Lawyer Urim Vokshi, who represents the families of those deported, has initiated legal proceedings against MIA, Kosovo Police and the Appeals Commission on Foreigners. Photo courtesy of Urim Vokshi.
The lawyer explains that in similar instances, when administrative institutions do not issue new decisions in accordance with the initial court remarks, they must again be brought back to the courts through new lawsuits. And only at this point can the courts assess the merits of the lawsuit. In the cases at hand, the courts have still not reached the phase of making their final decisions on the merits of the cases.
Kosovo’s State Advocacy Office (SAO), which represents the state institutions in courts, has insisted all of the decisions taken by MIA, Kosovo Police and ACF are legal and has filed responses to all lawsuits against Kosovo’s institutions, including appealing to the Court of Appeals in three cases.
Each time, through oral and written arguments, SAO has demanded the lawsuits should be “rejected as unfounded” or “dismissed as untimely.”
As part of their argumentation, SAO lawyers have tried to present the KIA’s security assessments on the six Turkish nationals to the courts which they say show that Cihan Özkan, Kahraman Demirez, Mustafa Erdem, Osman Karakaya, Yusuf Karabina and Hasan Hüseyin Demir (who was not deported) are a risk to Kosovo.
However, since the risk assessments have been classified as “Secret” and have therefore not been seen by lawyers representing the families, judges have rejected the assessments as evidence, stating that courts cannot base their rulings on “evidence for which [representatives of all] parties could not make statements.”
Doubt has also been cast as to the sensitive nature of these documents, whether they should indeed be classified, and ultimately the validity of the decisions to strip the Turkish nationals of their residency and deport them, after the former KIA director, Driton Gashi, told a Kosovo Assembly committee that they were not violent nor terrorists.
When contacted by K2.0, MIA and the SAO both said that they could not comment on ongoing cases that are still in the judicial process. ACF and Kosovo Police did not respond to any of K2.0’s questions.
The administrative cases brought by the families against Kosovo’s authorities will of course not return their loved ones from Turkey’s prisons. With limited agency to get the men released, the proceedings are, however, an important element for family members to feel that they can access some form of justice.
They could also have an impact on any potential criminal proceedings against institutional figures in Kosovo who were involved in the deportations, since the validity of the decisions taken by officials would likely come under the court’s scrutiny.
Labinot Leposhtica, coordinator for court monitoring and legal office at BIRN, says that public officials defending criminal charges have previously tried to use ongoing proceedings in their own favor by arguing that the issue is already under procedure in another court.
Labinot Leposhtica says that public officials facing criminal charges can try to use other ongoing proceedings to their advantage. Photo: BIRN.
“The court certainly takes into account whether or not its object of scrutiny, as a criminal offence, is being handled in another [e.g.] civil proceeding,” says Leposhtica, before adding that the Prosecution can easily negate such arguments “if it has already acquired strong evidence that demonstrates the motive and intent of these persons to abuse their office.”
To this day, the only criminal charges raised with the Prosecution in relation to the deportations have been against Kosovo Police staff. On August 15, 2019, the Kosovo Police Inspectorate filed a criminal report against 22 individuals to the Prosecution. Kosovo’s Special Prosecution told K2.0 the case is being investigated but declined to comment further.
The Inspectorate told K2.0 that the charges raised relate to “Abusing official position or authority” (an offense punishable by a fine or up to three years imprisonment) and “Unlawful deprivation of liberty” (punishable by between one and eight years imprisonment).
The outcomes of the Police Inspectorate investigation followed a separate process in the Kosovo Assembly, which in July 2019 approved the report of a special investigative committee.
The report found legal violations at almost all steps of the process, and 31 in total.
The committee interviewed 25 state officials including President Hashim Thaçi and Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj. Others that held high office at the time of the deportations — such as Minister of Transport and Infrastructure Pal Lekaj, Minister of Internal Affairs Flamur Sefaj, KIA director Driton Gashi and General Director of Kosovo Police Shpend Maxhuni — were also interviewed by the committee, as were specific directors within the police and MIA.
The report found legal violations at almost all steps of the process, and 31 in total, including violations of laws, sub-legal acts, the Criminal Code and human rights treaties enshrined in the country’s Constitution.
Some of the most flagrant were non-enforcement of the non-refoulement principle (which forbids expulsion of individuals to states where they risk being tortured), “the automatic implementation of KIA’s request” by MIA, the direct involvement of the KIA in a Kosovo Police operation, allowing the six men to be deported without proper travel documents, and not informing the arrested persons of their rights.
The whole affair — and the parliamentary investigation that followed — has also raised important questions about the way in which Kosovo’s intelligence agency operates and the ability of democratic institutions to hold it to account.
Government spokesperson Përparim Kryeziu says that legal changes are required to allow greater democratic oversight of Kosovo’s security services. Photo: Patrik Domi / Office of the Prime Minister.
The current acting government argues that Kosovo needs to change the Law on KIA, to allow greater parliamentary oversight of its work.
Spokesperson for the acting government, Përparim Kryeziu, says that the investigating committee had less KIA witnesses and documents than it needed. He also says that the KIA director has “absolute discretionary power” in relation to the Assembly as that person is currently able to choose whether to disclose information or witnesses to any regular Assembly committee or investigative committee.
“This means that the KIA director has the full and final right to deter any investigation against him or the Agency — refusing to give the Assembly access to information it needs in order to conduct an investigation,” he says. “The Government considers this discretion as unacceptable, given that the Assembly lacks final oversight authority toward the KIA and its director.”
With the country facing a constitutional crisis following the vote of no confidence in the government last month, and the ongoing efforts to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems unlikely that legislative changes regarding KIA oversight will happen any time soon.
In the meantime, the families of the Turkish teachers who were deported without warning simply hope to see some justice served.
“We just want the ongoing investigation into the six deportations to conclude as soon as possible, without any further delay,” they say.K