Turkish diplomats spied on critics in Austria, documents reveal

Source: Nordic Monitor

Judicial documents have confirmed that the Turkish diplomatic missions in Austria engaged in a campaign of intelligence gathering and collected information on the activities of critics of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The documents indicate that Turkish educators, representatives of local associations and businessmen living in Austria had been profiled by the Turkish diplomats and reported to the Foreign Ministry in Ankara. Then information was later used in a criminal indictment for a charge of terrorism by a Turkish prosecutor.

According to a December 12, 2018 decision by prosecutor Birol Tufan, the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office launched a separate investigation (file no. 2018/27478) into 13 Turkish nationals in Austria who were listed in espionage files dispatched by Turkish diplomats in the country without any concrete evidence of wrongdoing.

According to the documents they were charged with “membership in a terrorist group” by Tufan. The investigation was based on spying files created at the Turkish Embassy in Vienna between 2016 and 2018.

Critics of the Erdoğan government abroad, especially members of the Hizmet/Gülen movement, have been facing surveillance, harassment, death threats and abduction since President Erdoğan decided to scapegoat the group for his own legal troubles. They have often been denied consular services such as power of attorney and birth registry as well as having their passports revoked. Their assets in Turkey are seized and their family members at home risk criminal charges.

 

Judicial document dated December 12, 2018 reveals spying on critics in Austria by the Turkish diplomatic missions. (The addresses and names of the Turkish nationals have been redacted for security reasons)

Austria is among those European countries that have launched investigations into the spying activities on Turks and Turkish organizations overseas by Turkish government agents. Austria is investigating espionage operations carried out by an Austrian national of Turkish origin who was spying on Turkish citizens and sending reports to security authorities in Ankara.

Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer held a press conference confirming that the spy had confessed to being “recruited by the Turkish secret service to spy on other Turkish citizens or Austrian citizens with a Turkish migration background to then report them to the Turkish security authorities.”

Nehammer said 35 persons who entered Turkey from Vienna between 2018 and 2020 were arrested before Turkish intelligence contacted them asking for their cooperation in exchange for their release. “This is about an exertion of influence by a foreign power in Austria, and this will in no way be accepted,” he stated.

Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said Ankara denied the “baseless claims,” adding that the comments showed Vienna was unable to “escape populist rhetoric and its anti-Turkey obsession.”

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz recently accused President Erdoğan of using the Turks in Europe for his own aims.

The judicial documents once more confirmed that spying activities by Turkish diplomatic missions result in serious consequences in the Turkish judicial system.

As previously disclosed by Nordic Monitor, the foreign ministry sent lists of profiled Turkish nationals in two CDs to the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, the national police and Turkey’s intelligence agency MIT on February 19, 2018 via an official document for further administrative or legal action, the punishment of their relatives back in Turkey and the seizure of their assets.

Public prosecutor Akıncı, who received the foreign ministry document on February 23, 2018, forwarded the classified CDs including information on 4,386 Erdoğan critics to the Organized Crimes Unit of the Ankara Police Department for further action. The police conveyed the results of its investigations to the public prosecutor.

According to judicial documents released by the Ankara 4th High Criminal Court on January 16, 2019, the foreign ministry compiled a long list of foreign entities that were owned and/or operated by people who were seen as close to the movement.

Moreover, Nordic Monitor revealed how MIT infiltrated refugee camps in Greece in order to spy on opponents who were forced to flee to Greece to escape an unprecedented crackdown in neighboring Turkey.

In the aftermath of a coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016, some Western countries investigated the intelligence activities of Turkish Foreign Ministry personnel, representatives from relevant authorities, imams and intelligence officers accredited as diplomats.

In 2018 the Swiss attorney general launched a criminal inquiry into spying on Switzerland’s Turkish community by Turkish diplomats. The Swiss foreign ministry confirmed that the accusations outlined in the criminal proceedings were not diplomatic tasks and that therefore the people concerned could not avail themselves of immunity. Two of them had to leave Switzerland as a result of the investigation.

In December 2016 Turkey had to recall Yusuf Acar, the religious affairs attaché at the Turkish Embassy in The Hague, after Dutch authorities accused him of gathering intelligence on the movement. Similarly, Belgian authorities rejected the visa applications of 12 Turkish imams seeking to work in the country in 2017. The government of the central German state of Hessen ended its cooperation with the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Türk İslam Birliği, or DITIB).

Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu confirmed systematic spying on Turkish government critics on foreign soil as by Turkish diplomatic missions in February, 2020. Çavuşoğlu said Turkish diplomats assigned to embassies and consulates have officially been instructed by the government to conduct such activities abroad. “If you look at the definition of a diplomat, it is clear. … Intelligence gathering is the duty of diplomats,” Çavuşoğlu told Turkish journalists on February 16, 2020 following the Munich Security Conference, adding, “Intelligence gathering and information collection are a fact.”

It is clear that Turkish diplomatic missions violate the domestic laws of receiving states and the principles of international law by conducting unlawful information-gathering campaigns and sweeping intelligence operations. Erdoğan’s envoys enjoyed the privileges and immunities described in the international conventions while they systematically spied on critics of the president, collected information on Turks living abroad and transmitted it to headquarters.

The immunities and privileges of diplomats and consular staff are governed by international conventions. However, diplomats enjoying the privileges and immunities described in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations are under a duty to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving state and to avoid interfering in its internal affairs as detailed in Article 41. Similarly, consular staff are granted limited privileges and immunities by the Vienna Convention on Consular Affairs, but the host state authorities can start investigations and prosecute any of the personnel if they perpetrate crimes inside or outside the consulate premises, according to Article 43 of the convention.