Asylum seeker in Panama faces extradition to Turkey despite risk of torture

Muaz Türkyılmaz

Muaz Türkyılmaz, a Turkish businessman who was arrested at the airport as he was leaving Panama in September, is facing extradition to Turkey, where torture and other forms of ill-treatment have become widespread in recent years.

Since September the Turkish Embassy in Panama has intensified its démarches for the deportation of Türkyılmaz on trumped-up terrorism charges due to his alleged ties to the Gülen movement.

The Turkish businessman had earlier applied for asylum in the country and is currently waiting in jail for the decision of a Panamanian court on his appeal against Turkey’s request. As seen in previous cases, Türkyılmaz would face a serious risk of torture and ill-treatment and of imprisonment in Turkey if he is sent back by Panama.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been targeting followers of the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, since the corruption investigations of December 17-25, 2013, which implicated then-Prime Minister Erdoğan, his family members and his inner circle.

Dismissing the investigations as a Gülenist coup and conspiracy against his government, Erdoğan designated the movement as a terrorist organization and began to target its members.

Erdoğan intensified the crackdown on the movement following a coup attempt on July 15, 2016 that he accused Gülen of masterminding. Gülen and the movement strongly deny involvement in the abortive putsch or any terrorist activity.

Türkyılmaz was accused by Turkish authorities of downloading the ByLock smart phone application, which was available on Apple’s App Store and Google Play, depositing money in a now-closed Gülen-linked bank and donating to the now-shuttered Kimse Yok Mu charity.

The coup attempt triggered a transformation in the Turkish government’s use of transnational repression against its critics abroad. According to recent remarks by Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, 137 alleged members of the movement have been brought back to Turkey from 31 countries as part of the government’s global campaign.

In a recent report Freedom House revealed the intensity, geographic reach and suddenness of the Turkish government’s campaign targeting dissidents abroad and noted that Turkey is number one among countries that have conducted renditions from host states since 2014.

Turkey has seen a marked resurgence of torture and ill-treatment in custody over the past five years, and especially since the coup attempt. Lack of condemnation from higher officials and a readiness to cover up allegations rather than investigate them have resulted in widespread impunity for the security forces.

In two reports published in August the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) confirmed the continued existence of ill-treatment, torture, informal questioning and restricted access to a lawyer as well as a fundamentally flawed medical screening system in Turkish detention facilities.

According to a report drafted by main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy Sezgin Tanrıkulu, who is also a prominent human rights activist and deputy chair of the Human Rights Committee in parliament, a total of 27,493 people were victims of torture and maltreatment between 2002, when the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, and 2020 and that 86 others died from such mistreatment.

While 988 cases of torture or maltreatment were reported in 2002, this figure rose to 3,534 in 2020, the report stated. According to the report, enforced disappearances, which were common in Turkey during the 1990s, made a reappearance following the failed coup in July 2016.

Most of the victims of torture and enforced disappearances after 2016 were individuals having alleged ties to the Gülen movement.

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