This post is also available in: Bosnian (Bosnian)
Ozer Ozsaray has twice escaped the long arm of the Turkish law, but says he cannot rest. Bosnia and Herzegovina, his adopted home, does not easily rebuff Turkey’s powerful president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“From time to time, I experience threats and pressure”, the 47-year-old journalist and publisher told BIRN. “Turkey has very big investments here and there is a big Turkish community.”
Just three years ago, Ozsaray ran a small newspaper and publishing house and was a member of an NGO run by a local businessmen in his native city of Corum, some 235 kilometres northeast of the capital, Ankara.
Then, on July 15, 2016, Erdogan crushed a coup and unleashed a crackdown on anyone suspected of links to the man he said was behind it – the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Ozsaray came under scrutiny, and chose to flee rather than become one of around 160,000 Turks who have since been detained by police on accusations of ties to what Turkish authorities say is Gulen’s “terrorist” movement. [Gulen denies any role in the coup.]
Some 70,000 people have been jailed. Even more have lost their jobs in a purge that rights groups say has become a political witch-hunt.
Erdogan has not stopped at the borders of Turkey, either; using diplomatic pressure, financial leverage and undercover operations, Ankara has sought out so-called “Gulenists” who fled abroad or, like the teachers at Gulen’s international network of schools, people who had been based elsewhere for years.
Bosnia and Kosovo, which have benefited from Turkish investment and Ankara’s diplomatic support on the world stage, have found themselves repeatedly saying “No” to a valued ally.
In July, Erdogan arrived in Sarajevo carrying a list of “Gulenists” he wanted Bosnia to hand over, according to Milorad Dodik, the Serb member and current chairman of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency.
“Erdogan is asking for Gulenists from Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Dodik told reporters on July 9 after meeting Erdogan in Sarajevo. “Turkey has certain demands,” he said.
Ozsaray says he left Bosnia for an undisclosed European country before Erdogan visited the country, seeking a safer haven, as he no longer felt safe there because of Erdogan’s “long arm”.
The Gulen movement is a transnational religious and social movement inspired by the Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, who has lived in the United States since 1999. Erdogan and Gulen were once close allies, with thousands of Gulen supporters taking up positions in the army, police, judiciary and bureaucracy. Gulen’s schools and other institutions blossomed around the world – in the Balkans in particular – with the support of Ankara.
In return for this support, so-called Gulenists promoted Turkey and worked as emissaries for Erdogan in the Balkans. But from 2011 onwards, the Gulenists became uncomfortable with Erdogan’s nationalist and Islamist agenda and the first cracks in the alliance became visible in a fight between the two men for power. Erdogan then turned on the organisation, calling it a “parallel state” and “the Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation”, or “FETO”, for short.
Gulen has repeatedly insisted that he had nothing to do with the failed 2016 coup. Turkey has arrested thousands of Gulen’s alleged followers, closing schools, colleges, NGOs, companies and banks linked to him.
Erdogan’s reprisals against those accused of plotting against him have been merciless. The crackdown has seriously damaged Turkey’s relations with the West, while opposition politicians at home accuse him of using the failed coup as an excuse to hunt down critics and to consolidate power.
Days after the coup was crushed, Erdogan declared a state of emergency and ruled by presidential decree for the next two years. The government has fired more than 170,000 public servants including army and police officers, judges, teachers, bureaucrats, doctors and academics over alleged links with “terrorist” organisations.
Some 160,000 people have been detained by police while 70,000 have been sent to prison. Altogether, 155,000 have been investigated or prosecuted, according to the Turkish Justice Ministry. The government has also closed 70 newspapers, 20 magazines, 34 radio stations, 30 publishing house and 33 television channels. Around 150 journalists have been arrested, giving Turkey the dubious distinction of being a world leader in jailing journalists.
Thousands of schools, universities, associations and foundations have been closed. The government has shuttered several hundred companies. More than 90 municipal mayors, mostly members of opposition parties, have been thrown out of office while several lawmakers have been imprisoned.
Court ruling a ‘huge development’:
Ankara has twice asked Bosnia to extradite Ozsaray and twice been rebuffed by Bosnian courts, in December 2018 and in June this year.
According to the court documents, which BIRN has seen, Ankara sought Ozer’s extradition because of his ownership of a media outlet, his editorship of a local newspaper and membership of a businessmen’s NGO.
According to Ankara, all three activities were connected to Gulen’s “terrorist” organisation, which Ozer was thus helping to finance.
The courts in Bosnia in response cited the fact that neither the European Union, nor the United Nations nor individual European states recognise Gulen’s movement as a “terrorist organisation”, as Turkey claims.
In the meantime, Ozsaray, who had applied for political asylum in Bosnia, was granted a one-year residence permit.
According to a Bosnian daily, Dnevni Avaz, 65 Turkish citizens have applied for political asylum in Bosnia for the same reasons.
The lawyers for seven of the 10 Turkish citizens whose extradition President Erdogan sought from Bosnia with a black list, organised a press conference on July 15 in Sarajevo.
There, they said that Bosnian Ministry of Justice was checking Turkey’s demands that Bosnia deny or reject their residence permits, based on Turkey’s withdrawal of their passports.
“There is a great political pressure on Bosnian institutions to solve these cases, not in a legal way, in line with Bosnian laws and constitutions and international standards, but through political deals between countries,” lawyer Nedim Ademovic told the press conference.
“Bosnia is a small country under big pressure … it should defend its international legal reputation,” he added.
Levent Kenez, the former editor of a now-defunct Gulen-affiliated newspaper in Turkey and secretary general of the Stockholm Centre for Freedoms in Sweden, which monitors Erdogan’s crackdown, said Bosnia’s response in the Ozsaray case was a “huge development”.
“As far as I know, there are four or five cases [in Bosnia] similar to Mr Ozer,” he said, using Ozsaray’s first name. “This might be a signal for the authorities to decide the same way as they decided in Mr Ozer’s case.”
Some in other Balkan countries have not been so fortunate.
In March last year, six Turks were detained in Kosovo, put on a plane and flown to Turkey in an operation that Erdogan said involved Turkish intelligence officers.
It caused a political scandal in Kosovo, after the Prime Minister, Ramush Haradinaj, said he had been kept in the dark. Human rights organisations deplored the handover, which they said violated extradition norms, including the right to appeal.
Six months later, in September, six Turks in Moldova were deported to Turkey under similar circumstances.
Kenez said Ankara felt free to apply such pressure on small and impoverished Balkan countries that were hungry for Turkish investment and Ankara’s diplomatic clout.
“Erdogan draws a difference between EU countries and others,” Kenez told BIRN. “He cannot ask for a journalist’s extradition from European countries because he knows he would have no chance.” In Asia or Africa, however, he has had more success, Kenez said.
“Ankara is doing the same thing in the Balkans. What happened in Kosovo and Moldova is terrible … We know very much from all the similar cases that they would like to do the same thing in Bosnia and other Balkan countries, but after the Moldova issue they have paused.”
Bosnia, he said, was caught between Turkey and its biggest political and financial backer, the EU.
“I don’t think that, in terms of deportation, the Bosnian government will cooperate with Turkish authorities,” Kenez told BIRN. “But I cannot say that it will never happen.”
Adnan Huskic, an expert on Bosnian politics from the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology, said Ankara was lobbying Bosnia through official and unofficial channels, especially via the Party of Democratic Action, SDA, the main Bosniak party in the country.
“We know that in a vacuum in Kosovo, it happened that the left leg did not know what the right leg was doing,” Huskic told BIRN.
“Turkish citizens were extradited [from Kosovo], and delivered into the hands of a system in which their security, legal security… and basic rights will definitely not be respected.
“It should be ensured that Bosnia and Herzegovina does not go in that direction.”
After one night, everything changed:
Ozsaray’s life is in limbo. Having opened an advertising agency shortly after arriving in Bosnia, he has since had to close it because of the extradition case and what he described as social pressure and blackmail.
He said certain Facebook users had threatened to share the addresses of “Gulenists” and other information with the Turkish authorities.
“This has made us very uncomfortable, for sure,” he said. “There is also a huge media disinformation campaign, calling us ‘terrorists’ from morning till night.”
Recalling his previous life, Ozsaray said he did not hide the fact he was a follower of Gulen but he denied he or Gulen’s movement had anything to do with the failed coup.
Before July 2016, he noted, “We did not have any issues with the state, the judiciary or senior bureaucrats in our city. But everything changed in one very dark night.”
After the failed coup attempt, he said, “there was huge pressure from society since there was no [longer a] free media in Turkey”.
“People started to see us a treasonous group working against the state and the nation. No one wants to leave his or her country like this, but we did because we had to,” he recalled.
“The pressure was tremendous. Some institutions were stoned, books in libraries were burned, and school signs were damaged,” he said, referring to the network of schools the Gulen movement ran in Turkey and around the world.
But Gulen, he insisted, “never spoke of violence. He never said: ‘Take up weapons and do this or that.’” He added: “It has not been seen that anyone from this group committed any crimes.”
Of his adopted home, Ozsaray said he had first visited on a business trip in 2012 and found the country “very close to me”. “People are nice and Bosnian culture is very similar to ours. After I moved here it was very easy transition.”
Nevertheless, separation is a wrench. “I am away from my country; I have troubles; all my savings are gone. I left everything behind and I came here … yet I will forgive this injustice,” he told BIRN.
“I can forgive because it is politically motivated case and people had no crime in it. But I cannot forgive on behalf of everyone who was tortured, separated from their families and lost their lives.”