Turkey Is Waging an Invisible War Against Its Dissidents

By Yiannis Baboulias


A wall of Greek riot police. Photo by Henry Langston 

For the past week, we’ve been watching scenes of mayhem unfold in the streets of Istanbul, Ankara, and other cities in Turkey. What started as a local initiative to stop a central Istanbul park being turned into a shopping center became a civilian street war against the rising authoritarianism of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan's government.

As if to cement everything the protesters were already angry about, Erdoğan sent police in to quite literally crack skulls and fire tear gas and pepper spray at the mostly peaceful crowd. But alongside the highly visible violence, an invisible war is taking place on those from Turkey who dare to stand up and speak out against the government.


Bulut Yayla

The story starts not in Turkey, but in downtown Athens, from where Turkish asylum seeker Bulut Yayla disappeared last Thursday. According to eyewitnesses, at around 9:30 PM Yayla was immobilized, beaten, and pushed into a car on Solomou Street in the neighborhood of Exarcheia. When support groups and lawyers looked up the car’s registration plate, the owner turned out to be none other than a member of the Greek police.

Shockingly, the Greek police force itself denies any knowledge of the incident. Yayla, a political activist who has been arrested and tortured in Turkey in the past, has been trying to apply for political refugee asylum in Greece for some time now. But given Greece's famous bureaucracy, it probably won't surprise you that Yayla hasn't had much luck.

When he resurfaced after his kidnapping, Yayla was no longer in Athens, he was in Istanbul, being held by the Turkish counterterrorism police. Since then, he has informed Greek support groups of what happened after his abduction. With a hood over his head, he was passed between three different groups of people, crossed the border to Turkey (under what he said felt like a wire fence in the middle of the night) and eventually found himself in Istanbul.

The Greek police, of course, continue to deny any knowledge of the incident and claim that the car allegedly used in Yayla's abduction was retired from official use. But new reports of collusion between the Greek and Turkish governments over capturing dissidents makes those claims look unlikely.


A suicide bombing at the US Embassy in Ankara, Turkey. 

In the past few months, there have been reports in the Turkish media of police and government officials meeting with the explicit intention of cracking down on Kurdish and radical leftists. Those coming under the most scrutiny are members of the banned Marxist group Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), who Erdoğan blames for the bombing of the US embassy in Ankara last February. Yayla, a Kurd, was a member of the DHKP-C, which might explain the drastic measures taken to capture him and return him to the Turkish authorities.

For his participation within the DHKP-C, Yayla had already been detained and tortured by the Turkish police, before seeking asylum in Greece to escape Turkey’s infamous "white cells"—the maximum-security prisons where solitary confinement and sensory deprivation are used to torture inmates. According to the IPS news agency, Greek police chief Nikos Papagiannopoulos and his Turkish colleague met on February 4 and agreed that Greece would help Erdoğan’s government in its pursuit of activists like Yayla.

The deal was finalized a month later, with lucrative arrangements on both sides and promises of cooperation and investments in various areas—health, tourism, and immigration being just a few—in a meeting between Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and Tayyip Erdoğan.

As IPS notes, “That same day, the Ankara Strategic Institution pointed out that private Turkish investment in Greece has been used as a pressure tool in order to promote the deal on extradition. More reports followed, referring to preparations for extraditions, but the Greek government is yet to respond to any of them.”

Ioanna Kourtovik, a lawyer who took interest in Yayla's case from the outset, told me, “There is nothing we can do through legal means from Greece. It was an illegal abduction and the Turkish side is trying to make it look like they arrested him in Turkey, while the Greek police deny having any knowledge of his existence. But as the Council for Refugees points out, Ayala had contacted the proper authorities and he was trying to apply for asylum, so they knew who he was and where he was. His lawyers will file a lawsuit against any responsible parties, which might implicate the Greek police if it turns out they had anything to do with the case.”

Besides constituting a gross violation of human rights, Yayla's extraction would potentially be in violation of the Geneva Convention. And this kind of thing isn't anything new—both Greece and Turkey are beginning to witness their governments' increasing hunger for the detention and torture of activists, coupled with extreme violence against protesters. It's a worrying trend we've seen play out over the past couple of years in Greece, and something that's becoming more apparent with the recent unfolding of events in Turkey. 


A raid on an Istanbul DHKP-C safehouse in January this year. 

A "zero tolerance" dogma is firmly in play in both countries, which roughly translates to "it's now totally fine for us to kidnap people who piss us off"—surely a terrifying prospect for activists exercising their basic human right to protest. In both countries, counterterrorism laws are already absolutely brutal. And while those laws have been used many times in Greece for stuff like setting up and prosecuting kids for the heinous offence of carrying a stick during a protest, prospects are even worse in Turkey. Suspects have been known to be held in detention for up to two years without charge, and confessions extracted through torture are admissible in court.

Both governments now subscribe to the kind of law and order that has seen Greece's police force turn into a private army in tensions over the Skouries gold mine, and Turkey's hyperviolent officers attacking citizens over the opening of a shopping mall in Istanbul. But human rights apparently mean little to Samaras and Erdoğan, as long as there are lucrative business deals to be struck. They‘re both selling off their respective countries bit by bit, with little accountability and surrounded by governments steeped in corruption.

As blood is washed off the marble stones of Taksim Square, as activists are illegally abducted from one country to face trial in the other, and as the act of voicing your opinion increasingly begins to mean that you're a "terrorist," the mainstream media in both countries continue to ignore the real issues, instead condemning protesters or, if they're tired of that, immigrants. It appears that the two countries, who have suffered more than their fair share of social unrest in the past, are beginning to find a common ground on which to move forward: an utter apathy toward the opinions and well-being of their own citizens. 

Follow Yiannis on Twitter: @YiannisBab

More from Greece and Turkey:

Turkey's Weekend of Street War, Jubilation, and Bulldozer Joyrides

Turkey Almost Lost Its Internet 

Occupiers Faced Down Cops in Istanbul's Taksim Square 

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