Turkey tries to snatch Gülen supporters in Gabon

Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s long arm has reached to West African nation Gabon where four Turkish nationals who work at Hizmet-linked school were detained by the police apparently under pressure from Ankara.

The move came on the heels of the Turkish government’s abduction of six Turkish nationals from Kosovo in violation of national and international laws which resulted in the dismissal of intelligence chief and interior minister by Kosova Prime Minister who expressed his regrets on failure to protect Turkish expats.

The four Turkish nationals who remain in custody in Libreville, Gabon’s capital, have been working at Ecole la Lumière school that is run by Hizmet movement, popularly known as Gülen movement because it is inspired by the US-based Turkish Muslim intellectual Fethullah Gülen. The detainees were listed as the school principal Osman Özpınar, the Director of Pedogogy İbrahim Akbaş, his wife and the school accountant Fikriye Akbaş and an employee of the school Adnan Demirönal. Fikriye Akbaş was reportedly released on Tuesday evening.

It was feared that Turkish nationals would be deported to Turkey where they will be subjected to torture and ill-treatment. Sources in Libreville told Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) that officials from the Turkish embassy visited the DGR police headquarters where Turkish nationals were kept in custody.

The terrible saga started on March 15 when police came to the school around 11pm to detain Özpınar and İbrahim Akbaş, followed by the detention of Demirönal a week later. The normal detention procedures were not initiated for Turkish nationals despite outcry by two local attorneys who took up their cases.

Gabon authorities initially cited a document forgery allegation against the school for detentions, stating that the transfer of the school ownership to French company Mavna Cap on June 13, 2017 was fraudulent. In a comment to SCF, the company officials rejected the claim, saying that there is no basis for such accusation at all. It turned out that a Gabon national Balla Ndiaye who kept 1 percent share in the school ownership while 99 percent shares were purchased by French company last year testified to the prosecutor that he indeed signed the papers but did not read what was written at the time.

When the accusation on document forgery collapsed with the testimony on the plaintiff Ndiaye, Turkish nationals should have been released from police custody. That did not happen unfortunately when authorities brought forward a new charge, this time on the basis of “posing a threat to internal security of Gabon.” But the new charge was not reflected in the charge sheet of the prosecutor’s office.

In the meantime, police also asked the family members of Özpınar and İbrahim Akbaş to turn over their passports, but families refused for fear of an immediate deportation to Turkey where they will most likely face torture. This time police detained Nesibe Özpınar, the wife of Osman Özpınar on March 23. With the intervention of the local representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Gabon, Turkish families gave their passports to the police on the promise that they will be returned after quick examination. Nesibe was released on March 26 but the police never returned their passports since then.

The attorneys for Turkish nationals have said that the prosecutor’s office did not initiate any formal procedures for their extradition to Turkey yet. Compounding matters further, the wife of school accountant, Fikriye Akbaş, was also detained today.

French human rights lawyer Richard Sedillot who came to Gabon to investigate the detentions said that the case of Turkish educators appears to be related with Turkey as he saw the embassy vehicle in front of the police station and two Turkish embassy employees waiting inside then police station when he paid a visit to the police.

The local sources also indicated that the United Nation’s office was alerted about arbitrary detentions because both Özpınar and Akbaş concerned about their safety and formally requested the UN protection in July 2017.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in late March 2018 exposed the details of torture cases in Turkey last year and called on the Turkish government to enforce its proclaimed policy of zero tolerance for torture.

Turkish government has been trying to snatch Gülen supporters around the globe and so far has succeeded in few countries where the rule of law and fundamental rights and freedoms were problematic. Most countries including the US have balked at the formal extradition requests of the Turkish government, asking for solid evidence indicating a criminal activity.

Meanwhile, President Erdoğan’s lawyer Hüseyin Aydın said Turkish intelligence officers could be involved in more abductions around the world in the coming days. Speaking to state-run TRT radio, Aydın was asked if the Turkish government has had a “paradigm change” in its crackdown against the Gülen movement, in a reference to abductions of Gülen movement affiliated teachers in Kosovo.

Kosovo operation is not the first of its kind, Aydın said and added that “Fugitive Gülenists will walk looking back all the time. National Intelligence Organization will continue its operations everywhere. After the government’s success at home, there was a need to carry out operations targeting the movement’s overseas network. I think similar operations elsewhere will be carried out in the coming days insofar as legal circumstances permit.”

So far, a number of countries including Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Georgia, Pakistan, Sudan and Myanmar have handed over academics, businessmen and school principals upon the Turkish government’s request despite the fact that some of those victims already had refugee status with the United Nations.

US media last year reported that Gülen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999, was part of a potential bargain between former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and top Turkish officials.

An alleged plan that involved Flynn forcibly and illegally removing Gülen in return for millions of dollars is being investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, The Wall Street Journal reported on Nov. 10, 2017.

Michael Flynn and his son, Michael Flynn Jr., were to be paid as much as $15 million to hand Gülen over to the Turkish government under the alleged proposal, according to people with knowledge of discussions Flynn had with Turkish representatives during a reported meeting in December at the 21 Club in New York City.

The alleged meeting to discuss the kidnapping of Gülen followed another meeting in September in New York between Flynn and Berat Albayrak, energy minister of Turkey and President Erdoğan’s son-in-law, and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, with the attendance of former CIA director James Woolsey, who described the proposal to The Wall Street Journal as “a covert step in the dead of night to whisk this guy away.”

President Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government pursued a crackdown on the Gülen movement following corruption operations in December 2013 in which the inner circle of the government and then-Prime Minister Erdoğan were implicated.

Erdoğan also accuses the Gülen movement of masterminding a failed coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016. Despite the movement strongly denying involvement in the failed coup, Erdoğan launched a witch-hunt targeting the movement following the putsch.

A total of 62,895 people were detained in 2017 as part of investigations into the movement, according to Interior Ministry reports. The number of people who have been investigated for alleged ties to Gülen movement reached 402,000 in March 2018, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported on March 15.

Turkey has suspended or dismissed more than 150,000 judges, teachers, police and other civil servants since July 15, 2016 through government decrees issued as part of an ongoing state of emergency declared after the failed coup attempt.

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