Turkish journalist in exile says NATO must call Turkey’s bluff on his extradition

Exiled Journalist Bülent Keneş

Bülent Keneş, a Turkish journalist living in exile in Sweden, said the world should know by now that most people Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses of terrorism have nothing to do with it and that NATO must call Turkey’s bluff on his extradition, in an article he wrote for the Euobserver online newspaper.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson was in Ankara on November 8, hoping to persuade Turkey to drop its opposition to Sweden joining the NATO military alliance, with Ankara accusing Stockholm and Helsinki of harboring political dissidents who are labelled as “terrorists” by Turkey.

Among them is Keneş, an academic and the former editor-in-chief of the now-closed English-language Today’s Zaman daily and also an outspoken critic of Erdoğan’s government.

Erdoğan said just as Sweden wants to join NATO for its security, Turkey wants Sweden to take steps to help Turkey eliminate its concerns about its security.

“Issues such as the number of the terrorists who will be extradited to Turkey, 30 or 100, are things open to discussion. The deportation of the terrorist named Bülent Keneş is of importance to us,” Erdoğan said at a news conference with Kristersson.

Keneş said, “The world must have learned [by now] that most people Erdoğan accuses of terrorism have nothing to do with terrorism. Clearly, I’m not a terrorist, either. ”

Keneş stated that the only mistake he made was supporting Erdoğan between late-2002 and mid-2011, when he believed that Ankara was pursuing democratic reforms. After Erdoğan changed direction towards authoritarianism, Keneş said he started to criticize Erdoğan and his illiberal policies.

“The more I criticised his illiberal policies, the more intimidation, defamation and lynching campaigns, character assassinations, threats, and (so-called) legal investigations followed,” Keneş added.

Keneş said Erdoğan gradually took control of the media after 2011 and put tremendous pressure on journalists. In March 2016 the Zaman media group, including Today’s Zaman, which he led, was seized by the government and subsequently shut down.

“The controversial coup attempt on 15 July 2016, called a ‘gift from God’ by Erdoğan, paved the way for a further crackdown on opposition groups and independent journalists. With no hopes left for my personal safety and ability to continue my journalist career in an honourable way in Turkey, I had to flee,” said Keneş, explaining the path that led him to become a journalist in exile in Sweden.

Keneş said harassment by Ankara is nothing new for him, despite finding refuge in Sweden six years ago. He is used to being pointed to as a target by Erdoğan; however, he is not happy about being singled out in a strategic debate about the expansion of NATO due to threats coming from Russia.

NATO member Turkey is threatening to freeze Sweden and Finland’s attempts to join NATO unless they extradite dozens of people Ankara accuses of “terrorism” including Keneş.

A non-binding deal Sweden and fellow NATO aspirant Finland signed with Turkey in June commits them to “expeditiously and thoroughly” examine Ankara’s requests for suspects linked to the Gülen movement and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is recognized as a terrorist organization by Turkey and much of the international community.

Keneş is accused by the Turkish government of links to the Gülen movement, labelled by the Turkish government as the mastermind of a failed coup in 2016 and a “terrorist organization.” The movement strongly denies any involvement in the failed putsch or terrorist activity.

Today’s Zaman, a sister newspaper to Turkey’s best-selling newspaper Zaman, was closed down by the government in the aftermath of the coup attempt in addition to dozens of other media organizations due to their links to the movement.

Both Swedish and Finnish government officials said they will continue to respect national and international laws regarding Turkey’s extradition requests and that the decision for extraditions will be up to independent authorities and the courts.

Keneş was also targeted last month by the pro-government Sabah daily, which revealed his home address and secretly taken photos in Stockholm.

The journalist left Turkey in the aftermath of the coup attempt to avoid a government-led post-coup crackdown targeting critical journalists as well as non-loyalist citizens.

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