Turkish Embassy in Tbilisi spied on asylum seekers, secret documents reveal

Turkey's Ambassador to Tbilisi, Fatma Ceren Yazgan

The Turkish Embassy in Tbilisi spied on 52 Turkish citizens who had sought political asylum in Georgia, official correspondence of the Turkish National Police, marked secret, has revealed.

According to documents published by Kronos news, the Turkish National Police received intelligence on the asylum seekers from the Turkish Embassy in Tbilisi and communicated the information to the counterterrorism units of 24 provincial police departments. The police departments were asked to report the intelligence-based information to the public prosecutors’ offices and conduct investigations based on their instructions.

The documents refer to the asylum seekers as “supporters” of the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been targeting followers of the movement 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.

The documents were also distributed to the Europol and Interpol departments. The documents request the information contained be shared only on a need-to-know basis.

Critics of the Erdoğan government abroad, especially members of the Gülen movement, have been facing surveillance, harassment, death threats and abduction since President Erdoğan decided to scapegoat the group for his own legal troubles. They have often been denied consular services such as power of attorney and birth registry as well as having their passports revoked. Their assets in Turkey are seized and their family members at home risk criminal charges.

According to the guidelines of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the asylum procedure should at all stages respect the confidentiality of all aspects of an asylum claim, including the fact that the asylum-seeker has made such an asylum application. Assuring confidentiality is essential to creating an environment of security and trust conducive to the disclosure of all relevant information relating to the claim, as is needed for its proper and accurate assessment.

As a general rule, states should therefore refrain from revealing any information about a person’s status, whether as an asylum-seeker or a refugee, to the authorities of another state unless the individual concerned has given express consent to the sharing of such information. This is particularly relevant where the other state is the refugee’s country of origin. It applies with regard to the refugee’s personal data as well as any elements pertaining to his or her asylum claim, including the very fact that an asylum application had been submitted.

The documents once again show that Turkish diplomatic missions engage in intelligence gathering activities in their host countries in clear violation of international law. The documents also confirm that spying activities by Turkish diplomatic missions result in serious consequences in the Turkish judicial system.

Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu had previously confirmed systematic spying on Turkish government critics on foreign soil by Turkish diplomatic missions. Speaking to Turkish journalists on February 16, 2020 during the Munich Security Conference, Çavuşoğlu said, “If you look at the definition of a diplomat, it is clear. … Intelligence gathering is the duty of diplomats,” adding, “Intelligence gathering and information collection are a fact.”

In the aftermath of the coup attempt, some Western countries investigated the intelligence activities of Turkish Foreign Ministry personnel, representatives from relevant authorities, imams and intelligence officers accredited as diplomats.

In 2018 the Swiss attorney general launched a criminal inquiry into spying on Switzerland’s Turkish community by Turkish diplomats. The Swiss foreign ministry confirmed that the accusations outlined in the criminal proceedings were not diplomatic tasks and that therefore the people concerned could not avail themselves of immunity. Two of them had to leave Switzerland as a result of the investigation.

In December 2016 Turkey had to recall Yusuf Acar, the religious affairs attaché at the Turkish Embassy in The Hague, after Dutch authorities accused him of gathering intelligence on the movement. Similarly, Belgian authorities rejected the visa applications of 12 Turkish imams seeking to work in the country in 2017. The government of the central German state of Hessen ended its cooperation with the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Türk İslam Birliği, or DITIB).

Austria is currently investigating espionage activities carried out by an Austrian national of Turkish origin who was spying on Turkish citizens and sending reports to security authorities in Ankara. Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer held a press conference confirming that the spy had confessed to being “recruited by the Turkish secret service to spy on other Turkish citizens or Austrian citizens with a Turkish migration background to then report them to the Turkish security authorities.”

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