The Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C., has spied on journalist and academic Emre (Emrullah) Uslu, who has been exposing the wrongdoings of the authoritarian government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for years.
According to a 58-page classified report obtained by Nordic Monitor, Turkish authorities not only targeted the US-based journalist but also secretly investigated his six brothers and sisters, elderly parents, wife and even his 14-year-old son on account of his critical writings and analysis. The criminal prosecution of the journalist is part of a campaign of intimidation waged by the Erdoğan government to suppress critical voices in Turkey and abroad through the blatant abuse of the criminal justice system.
The report, prepared secretly by the police on February 17, 2018, includes the source of the intelligence collected on the journalist in the US. The Turkish Embassy in Washington had sent three reports about Uslu to Foreign Ministry headquarters in Ankara, which was later shared with various branches of the government.
The paper trail shows that the intelligence collected on him was sent to the Department for Combatting Crimes against National Security (Ulusal Güvenliğe Yönelik Suçlarla Mücadele Şube Müdürlüğü), a special department that was set up on May 12, 2016 in Ankara. Erdoğan personally asked for the establishment of the department and got it approved at a cabinet meeting chaired by then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in decision No. 2016/8591, adopted on March 14, 2016. The official government registry did not disclose the name of this new department; instead, it simply referred to it as one of four new departments that were set up within the Security General Directorate. It was later revealed that the department was set up with the specific purpose of going after critics of the government under the guise of combatting national security threats.
The intelligence eventually made it into the case file as criminal evidence against Uslu and helped the Erdoğan government prosecute him on dubious charges. The first report filed by the Turkish Embassy was dated May 25, 2017, in which he was listed as an employee and founder of an establishment run by businesspeople who are seen as close to the Gülen movement, a government critic. Another report filed by the embassy profiled him as an academic who worked for Virginia International University (later renamed Fairfax University of America). An entry into the file indicates that Turkish intelligence kept tabs on Uslu’s work and monitored him. His news website yeniyol1.com was recorded in the file.
The intelligence collected on Uslu also listed the journalist’s work as a commentator for the Samanyolu TV network, a major media outlet that was shut down by the Erdoğan government in 2016, as evidence of a crime. The network’s payments for his contributions as an expert on news shows were classified by Turkish authorities as criminal offenses. His phone records, which showed him contacting fellow academic Önder Aytaç, were also included in the case file against the journalist. Uslu, who was pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Utah’s Middle East Center at the time, co-authored many articles in the Turkish press with Aytaç, an associate professor in Gazi University’s department of communications who was also working with the Security Studies Institute in Ankara. The two often spoke as they were preparing joint articles; yet those conversations were listed as evidence against them.
Apparently concerned about the fallout if the scandalous intelligence activity targeting the US-based journalist and academic were to become public knowledge, the Turkish authorities who wrote the report felt the need to include a warning at the end underlining that the intelligence gathered on Uslu must be kept confidential and not shared with any third parties. In the event of legal action, the authorities must do their own research and use the intelligence as a guide, the report cautioned.
The targeting of Uslu by the Islamist government in Turkey is by no means random. He invited the wrath of the government when he in the past exposed the clandestine links of the Erdoğan government to armed radical groups including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Having worked in the counterterrorism department of the General Security Directorate (Emniyet) in Turkey between 1998 and 2009 and having studied terrorism as an academic, Uslu has written dozens of articles on terrorism-related subjects.
For example, he wrote on November 19, 2015 that the ISIS terrorist attack in France was related to a swap deal Turkey had made with ISIS. “Some of the assailants in France are from the 200 ISIL militants that ISIL swapped in return for 49 Turkish hostages,” he said, quoting a source in a security branch of the government. Turkey had negotiated with ISIS and given 200 militants to ISIS in exchange for 49 Turks who had been taken hostage by ISIS at Turkey’s consulate general in Mosul, Iraq. President Erdoğan admitted to the deal, saying, “Yes, a swap deal was made, so what?”
Uslu was indicted on fabricated charges in 2015 over an article he wrote about the Al-Nusra Front and received two consecutive life sentences because of it. In the article, titled “Who backs al-Nusra?” published on September 19, 2013, Uslu revealed the connection between Turkish front charity the Humanitarian Aid Organization (İHH) and Syrian al-Qaeda group the Al-Nusra Front and exposed Turkish intelligence agency MIT’s role as a facilitator.
“Although MİT currently denies it, it is claimed that personnel, arms and large amounts of money were sent via the İHH”, he wrote, adding, “As a result of this odd relationship, Turkey and the Turkish government have been accused by the West of aiding al-Nusra and the ISIS. Turkey’s credibility is undermined.” He asked why the Erdoğan government was bent on supporting Al-Nusra in Syria.
Uslu was the target of a plot in February 2015 by the Erdoğan government, which tried to smear Uslu and undermine his work on radical groups by having two pro-government newspapers, Akşam and Güneş, publish fabricated Twitter conversations that allegedly indicated a plan to assassinate the president’s daughter, Sümeyye Erdoğan. The plot fell apart when the fake conversations between Uslu and main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputies Umut Oran and Akif Hamzaçebi were exposed. Turkish prosecutors who investigated the allegations ruled that they were fabricated and decided to charge the newspapers with libel and insult. The prosecutors were later removed from their posts by the Erdoğan government.
However, the government did not stop pursuing him on false charges and included his name in dozens of indictments prepared in a politically motivated prosecutions targeting critics in Turkey and abroad. His analysis of the murder of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov in in Turkish capital in December 2016 and profiling of the assassin based on the killer’s radical network landed him as a suspect in the indictment filed by the Turkish prosecutor, who hushed up the probe into the real masterminds and accomplices.
Though living in exile in the US, hunted and harassed by operatives of the Erdoğan regime, Uslu has been trying to continue his journalistic and academic work under challenging circumstances. Launching criminal charges against journalists in exile is part of an intimidation campaign pursued by the Turkish government to prevent them from speaking out and against President Erdoğan. As in the case of Uslu and many other journalists, the government also went after their family members, immediate and distant, initiating investigations in a blatant abuse of the criminal justice system in Turkey, where the rule of law has effectively been suspended.
The police file on Uslu shows that he faces multiple outstanding arrest warrants issued by Turkish authorities on fabricated terrorism charges, the charge the Turkish government levels most frequently against independent and critical journalists in Turkey and abroad.
The Erdoğan government brands all its critics as terrorists, and 161 journalists are currently locked up in Turkish jails on terrorism charges, making Turkey the world’s leading jailer of journalists, according to the latest monitoring report by the Stockholm Center for Freedom. Like Uslu, 167 Turkish journalists in total have been forced into self-exile to escape prison on false accusations.
Over 30 percent of all Turkish diplomats, 60 percent of all senior police chiefs, half of all military generals and some 30 percent of all judges and prosecutors in Turkey were also declared terrorists overnight in 2016 by the executive decisions of the Erdoğan government without any effective administrative investigations and certainly without any judicial proceedings.
Critics of the Erdoğan government, especially members of the Gülen movement, have been facing surveillance, harassment, threats of death and abduction since 2014, when then-Prime Minister and now President Erdoğan decided to scapegoat the group for his own legal troubles, ranging from corruption to aiding and abetting jihadist groups in Syria. The movement, led by US-based Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, has been an outspoken critic of the Erdoğan government on a range of issues.
In Turkey over half a million people affiliated with the Gülen movement have been put in detention facilities on fabricated terrorism charges in the aftermath of a coup attempt in July 2016. Since then, more than 130,000 civil servants have been dismissed by the government with no effective judicial or administrative investigation, 4,560 of whom were judges and prosecutors and were replaced by pro-Erdogan staff. As a result of the massive purge, the Turkish judiciary and law enforcement authorities have become tools in the hands of the Islamist government of President Erdoğan.
The assets of individuals and entities affiliated with the movement which, according to estimates from Turkey’s Savings Deposit Insurance Fund (TMSF), amounted to $11 billion, were seized. The government also seized the assets and wealth of critical journalists and deprived them of their livelihood in order to stifle freedom of the press and freedom of expression.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Swedish-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.