Turkish dissidents find safe haven in Greece

TUR190518SK011ATHENS, GREECE – After spending 10 years in maximum security prisons in Turkey – stints that included isolation and torture – Turgut Kaya, a prominent local journalist and dissident, decided to flee.

And like thousands of his fellow Turks in recent years, his destination was neighboring Greece.
“It's not just me,” Kaya, 45, who was recently given asylum after a 55-day hunger strike, said at an Athens cafe. “Erdogan is attacking students, academics, teachers, and many other people that have no relations with any of the organizations he considers his enemies."

They don’t have any proof to go after me or these people – even judges are now in prison or exile,” he added.

Since the failed coup in July 2016, Turkish President, Recep Tayip Erdogan has intensified his crackdown on Turkish journalists and dissidents like Kaya. But the sweep has been all-encompassing and massive, and has ensnared thousands of people from all walks of life.

As of July, tens of thousands of people are in jail and more than 100,000 investigations have been launched against members of the military, teachers, lawyers, doctors, even Supreme Court justices and prosecutors, who are suspected of either being members of Kurdish organizations or the one known locally as FETO run by US-based cleric Fetullah Gulen, whom Erdogan considers the mastermind behind the failed coup.

“It's definitely a witch hunt,” said Spyros Sofos, a researcher at Center of Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. “Everyone in the opposition is being criminalized. Also, anyone with a personal animosity against someone else can just accuse them of being a member of FETO or the Kurdish organizations – and because no one is willing to investigate the claims, these people are easily included in the list of suspects.”

As a result, the numbers of Turkish citizens applying for an asylum in Greece skyrocketed from 42 in 2015 to 1,827 in 2017, and 1,152 the first six months of this year.

More than 3,000 Turkish refugees have settled mostly in Athens and Thessaloniki, a city very close to Turkish hearts, as it was the birthplace of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, and home to a Turkish minority until the 1920s, when a population exchange between Greece and Turkey took place.

Some like Kaya apply for political asylum. Others, come with student visas or have work permits. And the better-off buy property: 1,000 Turks have bought homes valued at more than $283,000, the minimum necessary to spend for buyers to get the Schengen visa that enables them to stay in Greece and freely move around other countries in Europe in that bloc.

Some, like Serkan Zihli, 38, say Greece is an obvious choice due to its proximity to Turkey.

Zihli, who until three years ago co-owned a PR company and employed 10 people in Istanbul, it was obvious that he would be targeted: He had participated in protest in 2013 against Erdogan's plans to turn a central Istanbul park called Gezi into a mall. The protest later turned into a nationwide movement, where millions of people of diverse political views and socioeconomic class – as well as age – protested the government as well as the plans for the park.

Zihli was a visible protestor, widely quoted in the media and his tweets were widely spread. Shortly after, he was prosecuted under Turkish laws that make it criminal to insult the president. Then came the visits by tax authorities to his business resulting in constant fines, visits he believes was deliberate harassment.

Zihli decided to sell everything and move to Greece, where he found a job and where his family can visit due to its easy travel connections to Turkey.

“I was sued for insulting the president and the government on Twitter even though I was just criticizing the government,” Zihli said. “But you can get prosecuted even if you just retweet something…this is done to frighten ordinary people. I'm never going back to Turkey.”

Still, this surge in asylum claims has resulted in further tension between the two countries, whose relationship has rarely been cordial.

This time, Erdogan is demanding extradition of the asylum-seekers from Turkey. One notable case was right after the coup, when eight Turkish soldiers, who on the night of the coup flew with a military helicopter from Turkey to Greece. Despite Erdogan's requests for extradition, the eight soldiers were given asylum.

The latest tiff is over Kaya's case – Turkey has issued an international arrest warrant via Interpol for his arrest.

On Aug 4, the spokesperson of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hami Aksoy, urged Greece to “respect good-neighborly relations and follow international law" while pushing Greece to extradite kaya.

But the Greek Minister of Justice said no even though a Greek court ruled in favor of the extradition to Turkey.
Erdogan has been using such cases to Turkey's political advantage.

"This reveals once again that the traditional sentiments of the Greek political power against Turkey have not changed,” said Aksoy.
Analysts agree.

“He’s trying to convince people that there are forces in the West and Greece that are fighting to destabilize the country,” Sofos says. “He’s even using the current economic crisis saying that Turkey is under attack to reinforce that narrative.”

“He is actually making it possible for an easy and voluntarily exit to potential dissidents," he added. "In a way it's a continuation of the purge.”

Meanwhile, those in exile say that the divisions that plague Turkey are mirrored in exile.

“Normal people have been divided into those that are conservative religious and the secularist modern ones,” said Zihli. “The two groups don’t speak to each other anymore. They live in different neighborhoods, they hang out in different areas.”

And those stuck in exile believe it won't end anytime soon.

Zihli works in customer support in Athens at a telecommunications company. He is vastly underemployed.

“This is the only job that I can do here because they provide me with the visa,” said Zihli. “(I'm in) an entry-level position, thanks to Erdogan. But, the most important thing is I’m free.”

Photo: May 19, 2018 - Istanbul TURKEY - Nilgun Yilmaz, a 56-year-old female accountant, voted in the June 24th elections for the social democratic CHP Party leader Muharrem Ince. She says she doesn't like Erdogan's government and with wants to keeps Turkey a secular republic.
Credit: Sevgi Koç / ARA Network Inc. (05/19/18)

Story/photo published date: 08/26/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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