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Greece accused of forcing Turkish asylum seekers back home

Journalists and teachers fleeing the post-coup purge have been 'pushed back' across the border, activists say
A refugee man sits near the river while waiting to cross to Europe near Turkey’s western border with Greece and Bulgaria, in Edirne, on September, 23, 2015.

ATHENS – As the final editor of Turkish political magazine Nokta, before it was shut down by authorities, Murat Capan oversaw the publication of an issue which predicted the country would descend into civil war. 

For this act, he now sits in jail, facing 22 years in prison, after being convicted of attempting to overthrow the constitution. 

Initially, when the authorities issued an arrest warrant in his name, Capan sought asylum in neighbouring Greece. His journey back to a Turkish jail is one that Greek authorities were complicit in, according to a human rights organisation.  

Capan and two friends had crossed the Evros River – which demarcates the border between Greece and Turkey - in the early hours of 24 May and asked Greek police in the town of Didymoteicho for asylum, according to the Hellenic League for Human Rights (HLHR).

There has been a change in policy ... it couldn’t be done without the knowledge of the government, or the chief of police

- Kostis Tsitselikis, former president of the HLHR

But rather than being taken to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as they were told they would be, they were driven in two unmarked vehicles back to the edge of the river.

There, it is alleged, they were met by a group of armed, masked men in military uniforms, without insignia, who said nothing, except to beckon them into an inflatable boat.

Despite protesting and asking again for asylum, they were deposited by the mute men, hands bound, on the opposite bank near a Turkish army outpost and subsequently found by Turkish authorities.

The Greek government has denied that account and Turkish media said that Capan was detained by soldiers of the Turkish 54th Mechanised Brigade attempting to cross the border. But the HLHR, which also reported a second similar incident days later and believes there to be a third, suspects Greek authorities of conducting "coordinated" deportations of Turkish asylum seekers.

Greek officials did not immediately respond to Middle East Eye’s request for comment but have publicly denied the allegations of refoulement.

Circumventing asylum procedures?

Kostis Tsitselikis, former president of the HLHR, who has been in direct contact with Capan’s relatives, told MEE that the incidents suggest a worrying change of policy from the Greek authorities.

“I assess that there has been a change in policy. [The order] cannot come from a low level, because it is a serious thing that couldn’t be done without the knowledge of the government, or the chief of police.”

Kleio Papapantoleon, the current president of the HLHR agreed, saying she is concerned that these deportations may be being used to circumvent asylum procedures. 

“These refoulements function as the leverage to override not only the guarantees of the asylum procedures but also the safeties and guarantees of the judicial authorities,” she said, using the legal term for forcible deportation.

The HLHR reported a second incident on 2 June in which another group of Turkish asylum seekers were also transported back across the river from Greece by armed and masked men.

MEE understands that the group were teachers fired from their jobs for links to the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen and a soldier of the Turkish Army accused of being involved in the failed coup.

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The Greek Ombudsman’s department for human rights has now launched an investigation into the matter, to determine whether the claims are true and, if so, which Greek authorities participated.

The HLHR, which has filed a complaint with Greece’s Supreme Court, says it is also aware of a third such incident, believed to have taken place in May, which it is investigating.

Tsitselikis also questioned whether Frontex, the European border agency which is responsible for policing the Greek-Turkish border, was aware of or involved in the pushbacks.

“They operate in the same region, with the Greek army. Do they know about these incidents, did they participate in them?” he asked.

“They should open an investigation, it is a European issue.”

The Turkish soldiers who fled Turkey sought asylum in Greece (AFP)

A Frontex spokesperson told MEE that its officers had no knowledge of the alleged incidents prior to media reports and that it has since raised the issue with Greek authorities and nominated its fundamental rights officer to look into the case.

The spokesperson also stated that Frontex does not have the power to monitor the activities of national border guard authorities in individual member states.

"All activities carried out by the officers deployed by Frontex are conducted in full respect of European and international law."

"The decision as to who should be returned lies exclusively with the judicial or administrative authorities or the individual member states of the European Union [...] Frontex does not have the mandate to monitor the activities of border control conducted by the individual countries."

In a statement, the HLHR stated that returning asylum seekers fleeing persecution in Turkey amounts to sending “lambs to the slaughter,” adding that “the rule of law must never debase [to] such a degree the value of human life and dignity.”  

‘Serious – and irrevocable – consequences’

Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, stated that if such accounts were true, they were “not in compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights and the non-refoulement principle enshrined in the UN Refugee Convention” and urged Greek authorities to carry out a full investigation.

The UNHCR also expressed concern regarding the reports and urged action from the Greek government.  

The number of Turkish citizens seeking asylum in Greece has increased dramatically since a failed coup in July 2016 prompted a purge of public officials and journalists accused of having links to Gulen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania.

In the first four months of 2017 alone, 243 Turkish citizens requested asylum in Greece, compared to 189 in the whole of 2016, according to figures obtained by MEE from the Greek Asylum Service.  

Gülen, an imam and former ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is accused by Ankara of masterminding the failed coup that led to the deaths of 294 people.  

More than 110,000 people have since been fired or suspended from their jobs and nearly 50,000 people have been arrested on specific charges including at least 120 journalists.  

Capan’s magazine, Nokta, was one of many publications closed by decree in July 2016 in the wake of the failed military coup.

The publication was the subject of controversy in September 2015 over a satirical cover of the magazine depicting Erdogan taking a selfie in front of the coffin of a Turkish soldier.

Demonstrators shout slogans during a pro-refugee protest march against the erection of a fence intended to stop the flow of migrants across the Turkey-Greece border in Orestiada on 24 January 2016 (AFP)

Shortly before he was arrested by Turkish authorities, Capan and another editor of the magazine were sentenced in absentia to 22 years and six months in jail for participation in a terrorist group and attempting to overthrow the constitution as a result of an issue which predicted Turkey would descend into civil war. 

The HLHR expressed concern that the alleged pushbacks are an attempt by Greek officials to ease tensions between the two countries.

A highly publicised case involving eight Turkish servicemen who sought asylum in Greece has led to a deterioration in diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The eight servicemen fled to Greece by helicopter a day after the failed coup. They asked for asylum, saying they were not knowingly involved in the coup but simply following orders. Ankara demanded their immediate extradition.

In January, the Greek Supreme Court ruled against extraditing the men. The court stated that fair treatment for the soldiers could not be guaranteed if they were returned.

The state needs to investigate it urgently and thoroughly, because we are talking about systematic violations of international law

- Kleio Papapantoleon, president of the HLHR

Several days later a Turkish warship carrying Turkey’s highest ranking military officer entered Greek waters near a disputed islet, in a move widely seen as an angry response to the court’s decision.  

In April, another ruling also blocked the men’s refoulement after Ankara made a second request for extradition.

Georgia Spyropoulou, advocacy officer for HLHR, said that the timing of the pushback allegations suggested a connection with the courts' decisions.

“If you connect the timing after the Greek Supreme Court issued the decision not to extradite the eight Turkish asylum seekers which created a lot of fuss around this decision and relations between Greece and Turkey, it is possible the two are connected,” she said.

“One can only speculate as to whether this is a 'deal' between the two governments or whether there are officers inside the Greek police that act autonomously,” said Papapantoleon, but added that regardless, “the state needs to investigate it urgently and thoroughly, because we are talking about systematic violations of international law that have the most serious – and irrevocable – consequences.”