Threatened and under pressure at home, hundreds of dissidents have set up new lives in Istanbul. Now they suspect nowhere is safe
ISTANBUL, Turkey - For years a haven for exiles from across the Middle East and North Africa, the suspected murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in his country's consulate has left many in Istanbul's dissident communities wondering about their own safety in the city.
Turkey's long border touching several countries makes it an inviting location for many fleeing from neighbouring countries, including millions of refugees from Syria's war. But Turkey is a favoured destination for those at risk in countries further afield, too.
Hundreds of Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian, Yemeni, Egyptian and Libyan dissidents now call Turkey their home and many choose to live in Istanbul, the country's largest and most international city.
Many of those were drawn this week to protests outside the consulate in a neighbourhood in the east of the European part of the city, holding up photos of the man who has not been seen since entering the building last Tuesday.
“What happened to Khashoggi is a terrorist act committed by the Saudi state. After an incident like this one it is natural for us to fear being targeted because of our political views," says Sherif Mansour, an Egyptian journalist.
Mansour has lived in exile in Turkey since the coup in his country that toppled President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-linked government in 2013. He was sentenced to 25 years in absentia and says that he left his country because of repression. He now fears he is not safe, despite being so far from home.
"Targeting opponents could happen anywhere, not necessarily at a consulate,” he told Middle East Eye.
Waves of dissidents
The great wave of dissidents, activists and endangered people coming to Turkey began in the early 1990s, when Kurds, Turkmens and Shia Muslims in Iraq began pushing against Saddam Hussein's rule. His brutal crackdown sent hundreds fleeing across the Turkish border, where most of them still remain.
Iranians, too, joined their ranks - particularly critics of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, whose election as president in 2005 prompted widespread repression in their country.
In 2011, when protests across the region known as the Arab Spring erupted and began to be repressed in turn, more people looked to Turkey for asylum.
Dozens of political exiles fled to Turkey from Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Some of the more prominent exiles are Tariq al-Hashimi, a former vice-president of Iraq, who fell out with then-prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and had an arrest warrant issued for him in 2012; and Mahmudali Chehregani, the leader of Azeri dissidents from north Iran.
Many members of Syria's political opposition made Istanbul their home when President Bashar al-Assad turned his guns on protesters in 2011, beginning a civil war that continues to rage.
The latest wave of asylum seekers to reach Istanbul, meanwhile, is made up of Yemenis, who began to flee their country in 2015 after a Saudi-led coalition began battling Houthi rebels there.
Most Yemenis first travelled to Saudi Arabia, though the political pressure they felt there prompted them to move to Istanbul as a second and last stop.
One prominent Yemeni dissident and Istanbul resident, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkol Karman, warns that the political pressure from Gulf Arab countries now extends to the Bosphorus.
"I am worried about the dissidents against the counter-revolutions and their politics, expecially those of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi," she told MEE.
"Those who left their home in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Syria and Yemen, and now live in Istanbul, are feeling worried now, after the crime of kidnapping Jamal Khashoggi. I think they are feeling that there is no safe place for them and this feeling will be enhanced if the criminals are not punished."
Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman of Yemen talks during a protest outside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. (Reuters)
Like Khashoggi, Karman has been living between Istanbul and the US, with the war in Yemen forcing her from home. She believes an international investigation should be set up to make sure no more exiles share Khashoggi's fate.
"It is a true catastrophe and I never expected such a crime could really happen. It is a crime that has no precedent in history. To lure a journalist to his country's consulate and trick him, kill him and dismember his body, as Turkish security forces said. The criminals should not escape from punishment," she said.
Turkish sources close to the investigation have told Middle East Eye that investigators suspect Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate and have identified 15 Saudis alleged to have been involved in the plot. Saudi officials say that he left the consulate soon after arriving. Neither side has revealed any evidence corroborating their accounts of Khashoggi's disappearance.
"An international investigation committee should be formed to work on revealing the truth and pursue the perpetrators of this crime, first of whom is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who I accuse," said Karman.
The Turkish goverment's tolerance of exiles' political work means Istanbul now hosts at least 10 TV channels run by opponents of various governments around the region, most prominently Belkis TV of Yemen, Felluce TV of Iraq, Orient TV of Syria and Al Sharq of Egypt.
The news channels employ mostly Egyptians, Tunisians, Syrians and Libyans, and broadcast online to make their voice heard in their countries.
Any political opponent living in exile is now worried. We all need to deal with our embassies and consulates to obtain necessary personal documents
- Mohamed Wrewar, Egyptian journalist
These same people have been left shell-shocked by the alleged murder of Khashoggi, a fellow journalist.
Mohamed Wrewar, an Egyptian journalist who works for TV stations in Istanbul critical of Sisi's government, said all political exiles living in the city are now fearful, as in all likelihood they have to visit their own countries' consulates at some point.
Khashoggi was visiting the Saudi consulate to get hold of official papers showing he was divorced, which would allow him to re-marry according to Turkish law.
“Any political opponent living in exile is now worried. We all need to deal with our embassies and consulates to obtain necessary personal documents. We are now afraid to go to consulates,” Wrewar told MEE.
“This could happen to any of us.”
A journalist reports from outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. (AFP)
Ahmad al-Okdeh, a Syrian journalist from Aleppo who left his country in 2012 and used to work for Orient TV, notes that Syrian journalists in Turkey had felt under threat long before Khashoggi's murder.
"A couple of years ago, Syrian journalist Zaher Ashurqat was killed in Gaziantep by [Islamic State]. He was working for Aleppo TV. Now these are happening in Istanbul. A Syrian journalist and her aunt, Hala and Arouba Barakat, both opposition figures, were killed in their house last year in September. Now, all the Syrian journalists are probably afraid. It could happen to me like it happened to Mr Jamal or Hala."
Now Okdeh says he is looking for asylum in another European country.
"I am afraid now, of course. I felt safe before in Istanbul, but now, when I see a lot of policemen on the streets, I feel like there is a security problem. We don't even know what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, he may be killed. I am not comfortable in Istanbul now. I am searching for a country in Europe to seek asylum. I will feel safer there."
Ayman Nour, an Egyptian opposition figure since the Hosni Mubarak era and a former presidential candidate, runs Al Sharq TV in Istanbul. He says his whole life is in the city now, and he can’t leave as he no longer has a passport.
“In 2013, I left Egypt for Lebanon, and after two years, in 2015, the director of the Lebanese military intelligence Joseph Ghantous visited me in my house. I did not know who he was then. He told me that there was a serious threat to my life from Sisi’s regime," Nour told MEE.
“Three days after his visit, I applied for a permanent residency in Istanbul, where I bought Al Sharq, the biggest Arabic TV channel in Istanbul. Now my entire life is here, especially after my Egyptian passport expired. Now, I can’t leave Turkey because I do not have a passport.”
Egytian opposition politican Ayman Nour (L), flanked by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Yemeni Tawakkol Karman (R), speaks during a press conference as they hold pictures of missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (AFP)
Khashoggi’s case is a personal issue for Nour as the two have been close friends for more than 30 years. Both men have been probed by the Saudi and Emirati authorities, who wanted to know why Khashoggi was so close to Nour, an opponent of their ally Sisi.
“In 2016, he [Khashoggi] published a picture of me and him on Instagram and wrote: “’Ayman Nour is my friend for 500 years.’ With this post, I think he was responding to [Abu Dhabi Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Zayed’s question to him about the reasons of frequent meetings with me each time he visits Istanbul.”
According to Nour, the Saudis have been tracking his movements in Istanbul. Despite that, and the apparent death of his friend, he sees no escape route.
“Simply because I do not have a passport. This is my decision and my destiny,” he said.
He also says that feeling safe is not easy for him, as a Sisi opponent, anywhere in the world. But he says at least he is not in Egypt, where he received death threats.
“Under tyrannical regimes like the Egyptian regime we can’t feel safe. Recently, a video was broadcast on Egyptian TV threatening to kill me. It was done in public, in broad daylight, without concealment or ambiguity on television. Thus, the feeling of being safe is a rare feeling for those who oppose these tyrannical regimes,” he said.
According to Nour, former head of al-Ghad, one of Egypt’s liberal opposition parties, “the assassination of Khashoggi is a symbolic assassination of the moderate opposition”.
“I belong to this liberal moderate school of politics. It seems that the tyrannical regimes tend to assassinate the moderate opposition more than the extremist ones,” he said.
Journalists, politicians and activists aren't the only foreigners in Istanbul now feeling the heat.
Amer, who refused to give his last name for security reasons, is a student who has two family members who are currently in jail in Egypt for attending protests.
He left his home country fearing repression and started a life in Turkey in 2014.
He says he hasn’t been to an Egyptian embassy or consulate since he left Egypt.
“I have made that decision, and I advise others to do the same. I need necessary documents from the embassy, but I wouldn’t risk going,” he told MEE.
He added, however, that Khashoggi’s incident “tells more about Saudi than Turkey”, and noted that the Saudis had abducted dissidents from several other countries as well.
“It could happen anywhere. I still feel safe in Istanbul, and Turkey in general,” he said.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.