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11 Nov 16

Turkish Deportees’ Families Want Justice From Bulgaria

While the Sofia authorities insist that seven men deported to Turkey in October never sought asylum in Bulgaria, their families claim the opposite and vow to seek justice in Strasbourg. 

BIRN Team BIRN Sofia, Istanbul
Members of Turkish AKP party protest in front of the German embassy in Ankara, accusing Merkel of supporting terrorism. Photo: AP/Beta

“The Bulgarian government gave my brother to a dictator and our family is deeply worried about his security and life,” the brother of one of seven Turkish citizens that Bulgaria deported to Turkey says, referring to Turksh President Recep Erdogan.

He and other relatives of the deportees say the men were sent back to Turkey despite a direct risk of persecution there as alleged supporters of US-based cleric Fetullah Gulen who the authorities in Ankara accuse of masterminding a failed coup in July.

Three families, who refused to be named from fear of reprisal in Turkey, told BIRN they aim to sue Bulgaria at the European Court for Human Rights for not abiding by human rights laws and international conventions, and for not allowing the men a chance to apply for asylum.

“Bulgaria is a member of the EU and we cannot understand how it could obviously and easily violate human rights and its own constitution,” the brother of one of the deportees said.

“Justice will be served – sooner or later,” he added.

Bulgaria denies that the Turkish citizens ever asked for political asylum and were economic immigrants.

But some experts believe the families may have a solid case and that Bulgaria should be held accountable for delivering the men back to Turkey where they faced political persecution.

The seven Turkish citizens were deported to Turkey on October 15 after being caught in a goods vehicle while trying to cross illegally from Bulgaria to Romania.

Pro-government Turkish media claimed they were supporters of Gulen who the Turkish authorities blame for the failed coup attempt in July.

Turkish police have identified the suspects as dismissed police chiefs Yunus D, Abdülkadir C and Uğur S, an academic, Yunus Hayri, from Malatya İsmet İnönü University, former newspaper correspondent Fethi A, science teacher Soner Ö, and Ömer Ö, who had a criminal records for selling drugs.

At a hearing in parliament, Interior Minister Rumyana Bachvarova claimed the men refused to take advantage of their right to claim political asylum, insisting that all them were provided with translators and offered legal aid.

She claimed that the arrestees could not prove they had entered Bulgaria legally and were handed over to the Turkish authorities as there were no legal grounds for them to remain in Bulgaria.

In October 20, the secretary general of the Interior Ministry, Georgi Abadjiev, told the Bulgrian news website Dnevnik that the seven not only refused to apply for asylum and to appeal before the courts in Bulgaria but asked to be taken back to their country.

BIRN approached the Interior Ministry with questions about the inconsistency of the versions of the police and the families of the deportees, but it declined to make further comments.

Sent back to Turkey against their will

Relatives of three of the deported men tell a completely different story to the one offered by the Bulgarian authorities.

“Germany stands in solidarity with all critical intellectuals in Turkey”, German minister of state for Europe Michael Roth declared on Wednesday.

He spoke after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu accused Germany of becoming a “safe haven for terrorists” for refusing to extradite members of the movement loyal to exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, the Fethullah Terrorist Organization, FETO, as the regime in Turkey calls it.

"Germany is an outward-looking country and is open to all those who are politically persecuted as a matter of principle," Roth said.

“They can apply for asylum in Germany,” he told the German newspaper Die Welt, as quoted by Deutsche Welle. 

“All seven people were trying to escape from the tyranny and anti-democratic regulations in Turkey,” the brother of one of the deportees - who was previously sacked over “terrorism links” from his post in Turkey - told BIRN.

He said he was in touch with his brother by telephone throughout the night of October 15 and says his brother told him he had requested asylum from the Bulgarian police in the border city of Ruse.

So apparently did the other six Turkish citizens and two Syrians, all caught together in the truck, driven by a Turkish driver.

“Police told them they would be sent to a camp in Sofia. But on the way, the Syrians went to Sofia in a different vehicle,” he says.

His brother and the other Turkish fugitives were placed in another vehicle and soon realized they were not going to Sofia but back to the border with Turkey from the GPS services of their cell phones.

BIRN has been shown messages and geolocations exchanged between the two brothers, which show that the men never went to Sofia.

A German-Turkish dual citizen who lives in Germany told BIRN that he had immediately hired a lawyer to defend his brother after learning about his arrest.

But by the time the attorney arrived, the man was already in prison in Turkey, just 20 kilometres away from the border with Bulgaria. He has not heard of his brother since then.

All three sources BIRN spoke to said their relatives told them the Bulgarian police pressured them to sign documents they did not understand before being sent back to Turkey.

No translator, lawyer or NGO workers were provided prior to the deportation, as Bulgarian law stipulates, the families claim.

Families will use ‘every platform’ to obtain justice

All three families of the alleged Gulenist deportees that BIRN spoke to said they were determined to seek justice for their loved ones, who have been out of reach since their deportation.

“We are preparing to open a case before the European Court of Human Rights and also before the Bulgarian courts. We will use every platform to uncover the illegality of the Bulgarian police,” the son of one of the imprisoned men vowed.

“Our family is ruined – mentally and financially – because of the situation of my father. All family members are weeping and have nothing to do. We miss our father and we are desperate,” he said.

Mihail Ekimdjiev, a Bulgarian human rights lawyer and founder of the Association for European Integration and Human Rights, said the relatives of the deportees had good grounds to seek justice in Strasbourg.

He called the police action “a bandit action, a kidnapping”.

Ekimdjiev recalled the controversial case of Abdullah Buyuk, an alleged Gulen supporter who was handed back to the Turkish authorities this summer.

He had applied for political protection in Bulgaria and a court in Sofia had blocked his deportation citing the risk of persecution in his home country.

But Buyuk was still extradited, caused outrage in Bulgaria, where many perceived it as a capitulation to the authoritarian regime in Ankara and to its threats to “flood Bulgaria with migrants” if it did not return wanted men.

“The police wanted to prevent them [the seven men] from facing trial,” Ekimdjiev said, adding that a Bulgarian court would never have allowed their extradition.

He said court may find that Bulgaria breached key international agreements, including the European Convention for Human Rights, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the UN’s Geneva Convention on the Refugees, as well as its own laws on the treatment of foreigners and refugees.

Asked by BIRN about the case, Ska Keller, an MEP and Vice-Chair of the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance in the European Parliament, said that all EU member states are bound by European law and that “Bulgaria is no exception”.

Keller recalled that EU law prohibits the expulsion of third-country nationals to countries where their life or freedom are at risk.

“The European Commission should investigate the case. If it finds that the Bulgarian government violated EU law, it should send a clear signal and start an infringement procedure against Bulgaria. This could lead to a condemnation of Bulgaria by the European Court of Justice,” Keller noted.

She called the EU-Turkey deal on returning migrants to Turkey “a dirty deal” that “amounts to denying asylum seekers access to the European asylum system”.

Keller also condemned “the determination of [President] Erdogan to ride roughshod over all democratic rights.

“The freedom of the press and the right to political opposition are core principles of democracy. Erdogan must stop curbing them. Otherwise Turkey becomes a failed democracy,” she said.

The European Commission migration directorate told BIRN that it was aware of the extradition of the seven men in October and of Abdullah Buyuk.

“All returns of irregular migrants must be carried out in full respect of EU and international law,” the spokesperson said.

“It is, however, first and foremost the responsibility of the Bulgarian authorities to ensure that these rights are respected and that access to asylum procedures is provided to everyone expressing their wish to lodge an application,” she explained.

In its 2016 progress report on Turkey, the European Commission noted the degradation of the rule of law and of fundamental rights in the country, adding that the wave of dismissals and arrests conducted there since the failed coup attempt had affected “the whole spectrum of society.”

“There were reports of serious human rights violations, including alleged widespread ill-treatment and torture of detainees. The crackdown has continued since and has been broadened to pro-Kurdish and other opposition voices with a very serious impact on freedom of expression,” Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said.



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