Secret Turkish Foreign Ministry documents obtained by Nordic Monitor have revealed the alarming scope of clandestine operations by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in targeting critical journalists who live in exile in Sweden.
The documents lay bare the inner workings of the Turkish government in hunting down critics abroad with broad administrative, judicial and law enforcement powers at its disposal. The ultimate goal of the government’s frenzied activity in targeting journalists is to sustain its intimidation campaign to silence critical voices beyond Turkish borders and create a chilling effect for those who still continue writing and speaking against Erdoğan.
A review of the government documents shows that tweets and articles published by the journalists were listed as evidence of terrorism, while at the same time Turkish authorities discreetly pondered ways to extradite the exiled journalists from Sweden through either bilateral relations or Interpol mechanisms.
According to one document dispatched by the Foreign Ministry’s intelligence section, officially called the Directorate General for Research and Security Affairs, the Stockholm-based non-profit organization Nordic Research and Monitoring Network (NRMN) was profiled as part of a terrorist organization. The document, which was dated March 8, 2019 and numbered GİGY/2019-23122108, confirms the Foreign Ministry has in fact spied on the Swedish organization and its founders, who are exiled critics of Erdoğan’s oppressive regime.first
NRMN runs the NordicMonitor.com news website, which covers exclusive news on security, diplomacy, intelligence and military matters with a special focus on religious, ideological and ethnic extremist movements in Turkey. NRMN’s executive director is Abdullah Bozkurt, a veteran Turkish journalist who was forced to move abroad in 2016 to escape the Erdoğan government’s crackdown on freedom of the press in Turkey, where nearly 200 journalists are currently jailed. Levent Kenez, another journalist in exile who used to run the national Meydan daily as editor-in-chief before moving abroad, serves as deputy executive director of NRMN.
Murat Çetiner, listed as a security specialist for NRMN, was also among those profiled by the Foreign Ministry. He had worked for the United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) as independent expert on various assignments. He has a master’s degree in communications and had worked for 18 years with the Turkish police in various capacities, specifically in counterterrorism. Çetiner advises NRMN on security issues.
The Foreign Ministry document claimed that the news site has published articles and reports against Turkey and alleged that it is part of the Gülen movement, a civic group led by US-based Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen. The movement was branded as a terrorist group by Erdoğan in the aftermath of major corruption investigations that were made public in December 2013 and which incriminated Erdoğan, his family members and business and political associates.
The cases exposed how Erdoğan and his ministers in the cabinet helped Iran evade sanctions using Turkish banks in exchange for kickbacks and bribes. Erdoğan managed to hush up the graft probes, but the case was later tried in a New York federal court in a different format, and a senior banker at Turkish state lender Halkbank, operating under Erdoğan’s orders, was convicted on multiple counts by the jury and sentenced to serve time in a US federal prison.
The scandalous Foreign Ministry document was signed by Muteber Kılıç, head of the department, on behalf of Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. The Directorate General for Research and Security Affairs has two departments: the Department for Research and the Department for Security and Intelligence. The directorate reports directly to one of three deputy foreign ministers, currently Ambassador Sedat Önal.
The document was most likely written by Turkish Embassy staff in Stockholm, a former Turkish diplomat told Nordic Monitor when asked to comment on the secret documents. “There are two separate communications networks in the Foreign Ministry — one for internal circulation and one for communication with other government agencies,” he said, stressing that the research and intelligence section at the ministry mainly operates as a messenger and forwards incoming communications to other relevant government agencies instead of writing reports on its own, he added. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity out of safety concerns.
According to a postscript in the document, the Foreign Ministry circulated its profiling note to the
National Intelligence Organization (MIT) and the National Police Department for further action against the journalists. The unlawful profiling sounded alarm bells on the critical reporting done by the journalists in Sweden and has already triggered a series of undertakings among government agencies and paved the way for resorting to intelligence, legal and law enforcement action against the founders of NRMN in Sweden. In fact, dozens of other classified documents, also obtained by Nordic Monitor, confirm that secret investigations, cyber hacking attempts and court action against NRMN’s founders have been under way. The paper trail also suggests an Interpol notice was sought by Turkish authorities against the journalists for their coverage of Turkey.
Turkish police, who received the Foreign Ministry document on March 11, 2019, referred the case to the Interpol/Europol desk of the National Police Department to lay the groundwork for distributing an international arrest warrant through Interpol mechanisms against the journalists. The next day the Interpol section treated the case as a priority and referred it to the counterterrorism unit in the police department for further action. The referral, signed by Lütfi Çiçek, head of the Interpol/Europol department, was also forwarded to the intelligence and counterterrorism departments of the police. A copy was provided to the Ministry of Justice for review as well.
At the urging of the Interpol section of the Turkish police, the document was sent on March 23, 2019 to the Istanbul 14th High Criminal Court in a secret communique by Chief of Police Oğuzhan Yonca, deputy head of the Organized Crime Unit in the police department. The court was urged to use the document as evidence to build an extradition case against Çetiner. The documents indicate that the court had already issued an arrest warrant for him under judgement No. 2017/2. Similar actions were pursued against Bozkurt and Kenez as well.
Another Foreign Ministry document dated March 4, 2019 and numbered GİGY/2019-23096709 dealt exclusively with the cases against journalists Bozkurt and Kenez.
The records also reveal that the government cancelled Çetiner’s Turkish passport, a practice that has been used against hundreds of thousands of people in Turkey in the last three years. The issue became a major problem between Interpol and the Erdoğan government when Turkish police flooded Interpol mechanisms, especially the lost and stolen passports database, with fraudulent filings against government critics and political opponents who had fled Turkey.
Moreover, a two-page secret document signed by Erdoğan Kartal, deputy chief of the counterterrorism department, on March 27, 2019 shows that police cyber units have gone through the Twitter accounts of the NRMN founders and reviewed and analyzed their messages posted on the microblogging website. The reports (43 pages long for Bozkurt, 29 for Kenez and 28 pages on Çetiner) were compiled as part of so-called evidence for the criminal prosecution of the journalists. Noting that the journalists currently live abroad but face arrest warrants in Turkey, Police Chief Kartal asked the police’s Interpol/Europol department to do what was required to prepare an international case.
The reports that were compiled expose how the cybercrime unit of the Turkish police tried to hack into the email and social media accounts of Çetiner. Using Twitter’s password retrieval option, police traced Çetiner’s email account. Later using Çetiner’s personal website, the police obtained his full email address and then tried to hack into his Facebook account using the linked email and phone number. The same attempt was made against his Gmail account as well. Çetiner’s retweets of @NordicMonitor Twitter messages were incorporated into the case file as criminal evidence.
Judging from the paper trail, this is not the first time the NRMN founders were targeted in a witch-hunt investigation by the Erdoğan government to suppress and silence critical voices abroad. On March 5, 2019 Turkish police started preliminary work to prepare Interpol warrants for Bozkurt and Kenez, according to another two-page document. The classified document, signed by head of the Interpol/Europol department Çiçek, discussed how the two journalists could be extradited directly from Sweden using bilateral mechanisms and suggested that in the event direct extradition is not possible, an international arrest warrant could be disseminated through Interpol to secure their handover to Turkey.
The paperwork indicates that the Turkish Interpol section had looked into Bozkurt’s case even earlier. A document prepared by the Turkish Interpol section on February 21, 2018 probed the possibility of issuing an international arrest warrant for Bozkurt and sought the opinion of the judiciary. However, Çiçek lamented that he had not received a response to his request about Bozkurt, either from the prosecutors’ office or the courts.
Similar action was pursued against Kenez, who is already facing multiple arrest warrants on a series of fabricated charges ranging from terrorism to defamation of Erdoğan through his critical writings.