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Turkey-Sweden Nato deal raises extradition risk for dissidents

Nobel Peace Prize nominee Ragip Zarakolu tells MEE he hopes Sweden will continue to protect him after memorandum promises greater cooperation on extradition with Turkey
Turkish writer Ragip Zarakolu speaks at the Frankfurt Book Fair on 15 October 2008 (AFP)

For many years now, the exiled Turkish writer Ragip Zarakolu has regarded Sweden as his home.

"I loved the nature and peaceful environment of Sweden. I married the librarian Monica Astrom Zarakolu. I have started a family," he told Middle East Eye.

Over the last 50 years or so, the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated journalist has been in and out of jail in Turkey under a range of administrations. Since leaving for Sweden in 2013, he has been unable to return to the land of his birth, fearing arrest again.

'The government cannot decide on this, this is under the jurisdiction of independent courts - the extradition request against me was also rejected by the Swedish Supreme Court'

- Ragip Zarakolu

At 74 years old and now a Swedish citizen, the country has become his sole home and he has relied on its much-cherished principle of neutrality, which has seen the country become a haven for political dissidents from around the world.

Now, though, things might be about to change.

Zarakolu's name was one of those mentioned by Turkish state media as being wanted for extradition by Turkey in exchange for the country allowing Sweden to join the Nato military alliance.

After weeks of highly publicised wrangling, on Tuesday evening Turkey announced the signing of a memorandum with Finland and Sweden that opens the way for the two countries to become Nato members.

Fearing Russian aggression in the wake of the Ukraine invasion, the two countries had announced their willingness to drop their longstanding policy of neutrality and throw in their lot with the western alliance.

A major factor in Turkey's objection to Sweden joining Nato had been the country's hosting of several Turkish and Kurdish exiles, including some linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an organisation that has fought the Turkish state since 1984.

The trilateral memorandum signed on Tuesday, according to Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, will see the countries "enhance our cooperation on counter-terrorism, arms exports and extraditions".

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Niinisto also told reporters that while the memorandum does not list individuals for extradition, it does describe principles for extraditions related to terrorism.

Though the precise details of what this will mean have yet to be spelled out, Zarakolu is fairly certain he will remain safe in Sweden.

"I do not think that Sweden will extradite me or other dissidents," he said.

"The government cannot decide on this, this is under the jurisdiction of independent courts - the extradition request against me was also rejected by the Swedish Supreme Court."

Nevertheless, Turkey announced on Wednesday that it would be seeking the extradition of 33 "terror" suspects under the new Nato deal, while Sweden's Dagens Nyheter newspaper reported that the country's intelligence services had a list of people who could potentially be deported over alleged PKK links.

MEE contacted the Swedish foreign ministry for comment, but at the time of publication had received no response.

'Very silly'

Among those mentioned by Turkish media as being sought for extradition last month were, besides Zarakolu, Kurdish poet Mehmet Sirac Bilgin (even though he died in 2015) and alleged PKK members Cemil Kadir Aygan and Halef Tak.

The pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper said that those mentioned were "all affiliated with the PKK terror group".

While there are some political dissidents in Sweden with undeniable PKK links, Zarakolu - whose career as a journalist predates the group's existence - has dismissed the accusations.

"I found it very silly," he said, describing the Turkish government's pursuit of him as "purely ideological".

Two Turkish protestors chant slogans "We don`t want NATO" as the others hold banner that reads "No to Nato" during the demonstration against the upcoming NATO meeting in downtown Istanbul, 2004 (AFP)
Turkish protesters during a demonstration against a Nato meeting in Istanbul, 2004 (AFP)

"I do not support any Kurdish or Armenian, Greek, Syriac or Jewish political movement or state. They decide which policies to support, and I just respect their choice."

The extradition request against Zarakolu reportedly relates to a conference he attended in 2009 hosted by the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), a left-wing, pro-Kurdish political party that was the predecessor to the Peoples' Democracy Party (HDP), currently the third biggest party in the Turkish parliament.

A lawsuit was originally filed against him in 2011 over the event and he was taken into custody over the party's alleged links to the PKK.

After being given judicial release he fled to Sweden in 2013, where he has remained. His assets in Turkey have since been seized and an Interpol red notice has been issued against him.

"I am a journalist who has completed 50 years in the profession, based on human rights and minority rights. I am a journalist who was the first to discuss the Kurdish question, the Armenian genocide, and was prosecuted for this," he said.

"The National Security Council in Turkey perceives the theme of genocide and minority rights as a threat. By [referring to] these, it is thought that I threaten the national security of Turkey."

Nato and Turkey

Turkey has been a member of Nato since 1952. As the second-largest army in the alliance, the country stood at the vanguard of the West's defence against communism and the fear of Russian expansion into Europe.

The importance of Turkey to the alliance has seen Nato stand by as military coups repeatedly overthrew elected governments in the country. Many of the leaders of those coups were themselves trained by Nato.

Zarakolu's first major jail term came in 1971 after the coup of that year. He was tried on accusations of "secret" links to Amnesty International and spent five months in jail.

Since then he has served several more jail terms, while his offices have been firebombed by far-right activists and his books have been seized.

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His experience, though, is one shared by myriad politicians, campaigners and journalists in Turkey. Today, the country is routinely branded the "world's worst jailer of journalists".

Nato's role in standing by or actively collaborating in this repression has long made progressives in the country deeply hostile to the alliance.

Despite this, though, Zarakolu said he believed that circumstances would force Sweden to drop its neutrality.

"Of course, it is a pity that this traditional policy, which was maintained even during the [Cold War], was abandoned," he said.

"But it is necessary to blame Putin's Russia, which has declared war on Ukraine… it was not possible for them to remain neutral in the face of the invasion of Ukraine."

Although Zarakolu still believes he will not face extradition, he said the memorandum was a victory for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"Erdogan's policy is a win/win mentality," he explained. "'Let Sweden and Finland become members of Nato, okay, but what will they donate to Turkey? What will I gain from it?'"