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Turkey exploits global fight against terrorism financing to target critics: report

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The Turkish government is using measures prescribed by international watchdogs to combat terrorism financing in order to target its critics, according to a report on Tuesday by the International Journalists Association (IJA).

The IJA was founded in Frankfurt by German-based Turkish journalists who fled Turkey after a failed coup in 2016. Bringing together journalists from a variety of countries, the association supports independent journalism and promotes online platforms.

The report, authored by UK barrister Michael Polak and Brussels-based lawyer Ali Yıldız, points out that Article 314 of the Turkish Penal Code, which prescribes punishment for terrorism-related offenses, lacks the quality of law, according to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), and says the Turkish government is using the vaguely worded provision to jail its critics and seize or freeze their assets.

Saying that the Turkish authorities have constantly abused the country’s overly broad anti-terrorism laws for political reasons since 2014, the report states, “This practice peaked following the 2016 coup attempt, and during the ensuing state of emergency regime, in which more than 1.5 million individuals were put under criminal investigation, 622,646 people have been subjected to criminal investigation over alleged membership of an armed terrorist organisation, and 301,932 of these have been arrested by the police.”

Turkey experienced a controversial coup attempt on the night of July 15, 2016 that killed 251 people and wounded more than a thousand others. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) government immediately pinned the blame on the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen, labeling it as a terrorist organization.

Although Gülen and the movement strongly deny involvement in the abortive putsch or any terrorist activity, Erdoğan initiated a widespread purge aimed at cleansing sympathizers of the movement from within state institutions, dehumanizing its popular figures and putting them in custody.

The crackdown led to the summary dismissal of over 130,000 public servants, including 4,156 judges and prosecutors, as well as 29,444 members of the armed forces, for alleged membership in or relationships with “terrorist organizations” by emergency decree-laws subject to neither judicial nor parliamentary scrutiny.

According to the IJA report, after 2016, a total of $32 billion worth of assets were confiscated on the pretext of fighting terrorism.

Citing a Freedom House report on Turkey’s Transnational Repression campaign against its critics, the report says that after 2016, the Turkish government embarked on a transnational repression campaign “that mirrored its domestic crackdown.”

“Until recently, Turkey’s crackdown has involved extradition requests, mobility control through the abuse of Interpol’s notice system, and the Stolen and Lost Travel Document database, as well as illegal rendition, which has been carried out on its own or in co-operation with other countries. Since 2016, the [extradition] of Gülenists has been on the top of Turkey’s international political agenda and, to this end, Turkey has sent more than 1,000 extradition requests to 109 countries,” the report said, adding that Turkey utilizing the global fight against terrorism financing is merely an extension of its transnational repression campaign.

“In December 2019, the FATF [Financial Action Task Force] warned Turkey about its non-compliance with several FATF recommendations, especially those that are related to the freezing of assets linked to terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In a bid to avoid being placed onto the Grey List by FATF, Turkey amended its Law on the Prevention of the Financing of Terrorism in January, 2021,” the IJA report said, adding that one of the amendments in the law pertains to requesting the freezing of assets in foreign countries.

Following this amendment, in April and December 2021 the Turkish government adopted two decrees to freeze the assets of people it said were affiliated with the Gülen movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C) and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the report stated and added that while the PKK, DHKP/C and ISIL are internationally classified as terrorist organizations, there is no country other than Turkey that considers the Gülen movement a terrorist organization. 

“Yet, of the 1147 targeted persons, 670 were targeted over their alleged affiliation with the Gülen Movement. Those 670 persons included journalists, academics, authors, teachers, and lawyers, most of whom have been granted asylum by democratic Western countries because of the politically-motivated persecution inflicted on them by the Turkish government,” the report said. 

As part of the report, Yıldız and Polak conducted a survey of 34 people affected by the Turkish government’s two decrees in 2021 who currently live abroad. 

The respondents comprise 13 academics, six journalists, human rights activists, a lawyer, two students, and 10 individuals with various professions. 

The report said 19 respondents stated that they were confronted with one or more adverse outcomes immediately after the respective decree became known. Nine respondents were denied the ability to open bank accounts, three had their bank accounts closed by their banks, two had their credit cards blocked and three had their accounts on online payment platforms closed. 

“The German newspaper Die Welt reported that Deutsche Bank had closed the accounts of some of their customers who had Turkish origins, for the same reason,” the report said.

According to the report, several multinational financial intelligence and due diligence companies that have branches in Turkey, such as Refinitiv-World Check and Lexis-Nexis, collect and process data, including the personal data of individuals, and share it with their customers around the world. 

“Through these methods, the data on the Turkish authorities’ political persecution measures against its critics are included in the databanks of these banks and companies, and they are transferred abroad and can be incorporated into databases in foreign countries,” the report said.

According to the report, respondents indicated that their bank or online payment platforms became aware of the listing under these decrees through the Refinitiv-World Check and Lexis-Nexis databases, saying that the findings suggest that the Turkish government is using counterterrorism tools to mask its transnational political oppression.

“This report is the first in depth look at the use of anti-terrorism funding laws to target those who have escaped from the repressive Turkish regime. Those who believe they are safe from persecution by the Turkish Government, whether on the basis of their political beliefs or ethnicity, have suffered greatly when the Turkish Government has used international financial institutions, as well as domestic financial bodies around the world to attack their ability to live freely outside of Turkey,” Polak was quoted as saying in a press release about the IJA report.

“International bodies, as well as domestic authorities, need to realise the use to which such anti-terrorism funding laws can be put by autocratic regimes and act to prevent this by putting states who use such provisions for such purposes on blacklists and warning them that their anti-terrorism funding submissions will be ignored if they continue to use them for improper purposes,” Polak was quoted as saying.

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