Turkish gov’t ramps up its refugee espionage targeting Gülen followers in US

The Turkish government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has intensified its refugee espionage targeting alleged members of the Gülen movement abroad.

Three stories about followers of the Gülen movement who live in the United States published by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency (AA) on Thursday have created fear that the Turkish government has accelerated its intimidation tactics and refugee espionage in the US.

Foreign countries’ intelligence activities targeting dissidents in exile is known as “refugee espionage.” It is also well known that AA has collaborated with Turkey’s notorious National Intelligence Organisation (MİT) in its so-called news gathering.

Refugee espionage make people fear not only for their own security but also that of relatives in their former home countries. This may also undermine the democratic process and lead to a situation where people who have sought asylum in another country may no longer feel able to enjoy their constitutional rights and freedoms. Such dissidents may also be subject to monitoring by foreign intelligence services.

On Thursday, AA reported that alleged members of the Gülen movement living in the US state of New Jersey have been using a church as their meeting place. AA filmed the alleged members the movement during their evening meetings at the Cliffside Park borough in New Jersey. It was later learned from social media posts that these people have been using the church for Muslim prayers during the holy month of Ramadan.

The report said there is a nearby Turkish community mosque, the Mosque of Bergen, which is administered by Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet), but the followers of the Gülen movement instead congregate at the Trinity Episcopal Church.

However, it is widely known that imams from Diyanet have spied on people sympathetic to Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen all around the world. As a result of investigations into Diyanet imams who spied on Gülen movement sympathizers in Germany, the Turkish government decided to recall some of the imams for fear of prosecution in Germany.

AA reported that Abdulhadi Yıldırım, who allegedly gives financial support to the Gülen movement, and the brother-in-law of Adil Öksüz, the Turkish government’s main suspect in a controversial coup attempt on July 15, 2016, are among those who attend.

AA also said it has filmed Yıldırım in front of his luxury car dealership in New Jersey’s Edgewater borough talking to his employees and kissing an American flag, then handing the flag to an employee to kiss.

AA’s footage also shows Alp Aslandoğan, executive director of a Gülen movement-affiliated civil society organisation named the Alliance for Shared Values (AfSV), as among the participants of the meetings.

AA’s report said after leaving their vehicles in a private parking lot, the members of the Gülen movement open the doors of the church by themselves, as there is no staff on duty. The footage also showed these people turning off the lamps of the church and locking the church gate after finishing their meeting.

AA claimed the church and the members of the Gülen movement apparently have long had strong connections. According to the report, the website of the New Jersey branch of the Turkish Cultural Center shows information and footage of the visits and activities with the Trinity Episcopal Church.

The webpage shows various events such as a visit to church pastor Willie J. Smith and joint events at the church with Arzu Kaya Uranlı, a journalist for the closed-down Today’s Zaman daily, and Zaman America webpage Editor Sıtkı Özcan. AA said the Trinity Episcopal Church, known for its liberal stance and favoring interfaith dialogue, includes content on its good relations with the Gülen movement on its website.

AA also filmed Abdulhadi Yıldırım, a close relative of Öksüz, living in New Jersey and running a business there. He was captured secretly on film by AA correspondents shortly after Öksüz was allegedly spotted in the German capital of Berlin.

Earlier Aynur Öksüz, Adil Öksüz’s wife, was also caught on film by Anadolu correspondents in New Jersey, where she lives with her brother along with her three children. AA reported “Spotted at Yıldırım’s half million dollar house, located on Clarke Ave in Ridgefield, Aynur Öksüz was seen driving a Chevrolet Cruze.”

AA also claimed based on an alleged police report that Aynur Öksüz, also used the ByLock mobile phone messaging app and deposited money in private lender Bank Asya. The bank’s banking license was cancelled by the Turkish government body on July 22, 2016, seven days after the coup bid.

Turkey survived a controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016 that killed 249 people. Immediately after the putsch, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government along with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pinned the blame on the Gülen movement.

Fethullah Gülen, who inspired the movement, strongly denied having any role in the failed coup and called for an international investigation into it, but President Erdoğan — calling the coup attempt “a gift from God” — and the government initiated a widespread purge aimed at cleansing sympathizers of the movement from within state institutions, dehumanizing its popular figures and putting them in custody.

Turkey has suspended or dismissed more than 150,000 judges, teachers, police and civil servants since July 15. On December 13, 2017 the Justice Ministry announced that 169,013 people have been the subject of legal proceedings on coup charges since the failed coup.

Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu announced on April 18, 2018 that the Turkish government had jailed 77,081 people between July 15, 2016 and April 11, 2018 over alleged links to the Gülen movement.

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