COMMENTARY — Turkey’s Erdoğan trades in influence at the Council of Europe

By Abdullah Bozkurt

It was certainly not surprising to see that Turkey, led by the corrupt government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was mentioned in a damning corruption report by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s (PACE) Independent Investigation Body (IIB). The report and ensuing debate reveal clandestine methods employed in influence peddling allegedly on behalf of the repressive regime in Ankara while possibly exposing operatives who do the dirty bidding of the Turkish government. In light of this controversy, questions surfaced surrounding the role of the Council of Europe’s Secretary-General Thorbjorn Jagland, who is considered by some to be an unusual ally for Erdoğan.

A number of witnesses including staff from the PACE secretariat expressed concern as to how PACE’s work on Turkey had been conducted, according to the IIB’s 200-page report, prepared by Sir Nicolas Bratza of the UK, a former judge and former president of the European Court of Human Rights; Jean-Louis Bruguière of France, a former judge in charge of investigations, in particular in cases related to terrorism, and international expert on counterterrorism issues; and Elisabet Fura, a former judge at the European Court of Human Rights and former chief parliamentary ombudsman of Sweden.

Former British lawmaker Robert Walter, who headed the United Kingdom delegation to PACE, was named in a corruption scandal with respect to both Azerbaijan and Turkey, with a number of allegations leveled against him. “An allegation was made by a member of the PACE secretariat of a conflict of interest on the part of Mr. Walter with regard to Turkey because of his dual British and Turkish citizenship and because his wife was a Turkish national. His reports were biased when touching upon questions relating to Turkey. Moreover, Mr. Walter was allegedly frequently invited to luxury hotels in Turkey and had received medals and other distinctions from that State,” the IIB report said.

Walter married a Turkish woman, Feride Alp-Walter, in 2011, and he has frequently traveled to Turkey, where the two own a luxury home in the resort town Bodrum. In May 2015 Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who was former president of PACE, personally gave a Turkish national identity card to Walter in a ceremony held at the Turkish embassy in London. In an interview with a Turkish daily in July 2015, Walter explained how his naturalization process was facilitated by Çavuşoğlu even though he had very little knowledge of the Turkish language, one of the requirements for acquiring Turkish citizenship.

Spanish lawmaker and former PACE President Pedro Agramunt, another close ally of Turkey and friend of Çavuşoğlu, was also found to have violated the code of conduct in the Council of Europe’s parliamentary body. The 10-month-long independent investigation concluded that “there is a strong suspicion that Mr. Pedro Agramunt was party to activity of a corruptive nature.” Among other things, Agramunt has been accused of accepting €200,000 to assure his election as PACE president, luxury gifts including vacations, jewelry and watches, and prostitutes as bribes during an electoral mission to Azerbaijan in 2015. Agramunt, who resigned from the PACE presidency in October 2017 to prevent moves to sack him, declined to appear before the IIB panel despite repeated summons to testify. Nevertheless, the IIB concluded the evidence and facts obtained through other means were sufficient to reach a conclusion that he had acted contrary to the relevant ethical standards.

Agramunt rushed to the aid of Çavuşoğlu when the Turkish foreign minister was barred from visiting the Netherlands for a political campaign after the Dutch government on March 11, 2017 revoked the landing rights of his plane. President Erdoğan personally ordered another minister, Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, who was in Germany at the time, to make a trip by car to the Dutch city Rotterdam to complete Çavuşoğlu’s task, prompting the Netherlands to escort her out of the country amid clashes between the Dutch police and Erdoğan fans. Agramunt on March 12, 2017 posted a message on his Twitter account stating that he was “worried by raising tension between Turkey and its Europe partners following cancellation of Turkish MFA @mevlutcavusoglu flight to Amsterdam.” He then shared a photo of him shaking hands with Çavuşoğlu in a move clearly indicating that he was siding with Turkey in the spat with the Netherlands.

This appears to be only the tip of the iceberg on Turkey, and others have manipulated PACE for political purposes at the expense of protecting rights and freedoms, the rule of law and democratic values. Some 850 million citizens in the 47 member-states of the Council of Europe were let down by crooked politicians, putting at risk the credibility and effectiveness of Europe’s largest intergovernmental body that is supposed to protect citizens’ rights. As Dutch deputy Tineke Strik articulated well in this week’s session at PACE, the Council of Europe needs urgent action to make its bodies “resistant to those repressive regimes that want to ensure that they can continue to violate the human rights of their people.”

Perhaps it is high time to review the conduct of Council of Europe Secretary-General Jagland with respect to Turkey as well, considering how he is highly regarded by the repressive regime of Erdoğan that has locked up 160,000 political prisoners including over 250 journalists in a mere year and a half. Some 150,000 civil servants were dismissed by the government and branded as terrorists by government decrees without any effective administrative or judicial investigation. Yet, with the initiatives of Jagland, most complaints filed with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) were rejected, with the exception of few high-profile journalist cases.

There are many questions surrounding Jagland’s engagement with Turkish officials, and it is quite puzzling to see that he is among a very select few foreign figures the Erdoğan regime considers friends and allies when he should be on the front lines of the target list for defending the rights and freedoms of so many who have pinned their hopes on the Council of Europe and the ECtHR. When the PACE Monitoring Committee this week urged the Turkish government to end a state of emergency that has been extended seven times since 2016 and asked for the postponement of snap elections over concerns of their legitimacy and democratic credentials, the Turkish government lashed out at PACE but spared Jagland from criticism.

Accusing PACE of lacking vision, Turkey’s EU Affairs Minister Ömer Çelik said on April 24 that “the Monitoring Committee stepped way out the line and took a political decision.” However, the Turkish minister said nice things about Jagland in the same speech that slammed the Council of Europe’s bodies. “We are very happy with our cooperation with Jagland. … We have a very positive relationship with him. But unfortunately, these institutions [of the Council of Europe] acted outside the vision of the secretary-general,” Çelik claimed.

We now know why Çelik and his boss Erdoğan were pleased with Jagland’s performance thanks to the minutes of the EU minister’s closed-door meeting with members of the Parliamentary Commission of Foreign Relations on April 4, 2018. Speaking to lawmakers after reporters were ushered out of the room, Çelik revealed how the Turkish government set up the State of Emergency Procedures Investigation (OHAL) Commission to prevent cases from ending up in the Strasbourg-based ECtHR.

“There must be a mechanism to prevent these complaints [over mass dismissals] from going to the ECtHR,” Jagland said to Çelik during his visit to Turkey, according to the account provided by the minister to the committee. Praising Jagland for his position towards Turkey which he said stood in sharp contrast to others, for example the European Parliament, Çelik said the OHAL commission was established in line with Jagland’s proposal. Miraculously, government decree No. 685, which announced the decision to set up the OHAL commission, came hours before the PACE winter session was about to start, on Jan. 23, 2017. Taking to the floor to answer questions from PACE deputies two days later, Jagland boasted how he secured the Erdoğan government’s commitment to establish such a commission while deflecting criticism on rights violations.

But everybody including Jagland and Çelik knew the OHAL Commission was stillborn and that nobody believed the same government that had dismissed some 150,000 people in the first place would be able to review its own conduct freely and fairly. The members of the OHAL commission are all Erdoğan loyalists who actually helped the government coordinate the unlawful profiling of many in senior positions of the government based on their ideology and racial and political views. The rules and procedures were cumbersome, with no access to alleged evidence for the victims and vague criteria on how the commission would review complaints. The first results as of mid-April show that the commission decided to reinstate 310 out of 12,000 applicants dismissed by the government. This shows that the OHAL commission is a rubberstamping body, overwhelmingly approving government actions. There are some 100,000 cases still pending before the commission.

As a result, Jagland has effectively helped an oppressive regime in Turkey gain more time to escalate its crackdown and failed the victims when they most needed the CoE, especially the ECtHR. Most cases filed with the ECtHR were rejected on the premise that the OHAL commission was there as a domestic remedy and that the principle of subsidiarity should be applied. In fact, the CoE should have considered Turkey to be a special case given the intensity and breadth of the massive crackdown on all segments of society and should start accepting applications directly, by citing special circumstances in Turkey where domestic remedies by and large have ceased to function effectively and efficiently.

If the allegations of the breach of the rules and procedures on the code of conduct and corruption at the Council of Europe are investigated further, we may have an answer as to why Jagland rushed to Erdoğan’s aid in supporting the harsh measures the Turkish government took on the pretext of battling the failed coup. In so many ways, the Erdoğan government has taken actions that have nothing to do with the restoration of democracy in Turkey but are rather aimed at dismantling the parliamentary democracy and transforming the 80-million-strong nation into an Islamist dictatorship. In one case the government even issued an emergency decree on the use of snow tires, with Dutch lawmaker Mart van de Ven ridiculing the move at the PACE plenary this week, demanding the justification behind such an action.

I’m still puzzled why Jagland did not publicly say a word about the thousands of judges, prosecutors, academics, journalists and others who apparently had nothing at all to do with the coup but were rounded up, abused and tortured in detention when he met with Erdoğan and other Turkish officials during his visit to Turkey in August 2016. Instead, he defended the Turkish government’s actions and said, “There has been too little understanding in Europe about the challenges facing democracy and state institutions in Turkey after the outrageous coup attempt of 15 July.” This is exactly the same narrative and talking point the Erdoğan government has been using to defend itself against all kinds of criticism from abroad. The fact of the matter is that the real coup was staged on July 20, 2016 when Erdoğan declared a state of emergency after orchestrating the false flag abortive coup five days earlier with the cooperation of his intelligence and military chiefs.

I have watched the Council of Europe and followed PACE sessions for enough years to know the value of this organization. It would be a shame to undermine and discredit such an organization that champions the rule of law, rights and freedoms and democratic principles. Petty interests, influence peddling, abuse of power, breaches of the code of conduct and ethical standards and corruption pose a great challenge to the Council of Europe. As some PACE deputies suggested, now is the perfect time to establish an external and independent review body to fully cleanse of the Council of Europe of all these bad influences. The media, which actually helped launch the IIB in the first place, as well as civil society and nongovernmental organizations play a vital role in this accountability. (turkishminute.com)

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