The illegal surveillance, information collection and monitoring activities of the Turkish intelligence agency in Australia are exposed in classified documents obtained by Nordic Monitor.
According to a cache of documents, the National Intelligence Organization (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı, or MIT) has spied on critics and opponents of the Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Australian territory. In what is likely to be the first confirmed case of MIT espionage in the country, a prominent figure affiliated with a pro-democracy opposition group was targeted in Sydney by agents of Turkey's authoritarian rulers.
The MIT document detailing the espionage was identified when the counterterrorism chief at the Ankara Police Department submitted a 17-page report to the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor's Office on March 16, 2020 in order to build a sham criminal case against critics and opponents of the Erdoğan regime.
"The information obtained from the affiliated institution (IV) as part of the information collection to identify and decipher activities of the Gülenists is submitted in the attached report," wrote Yusuf Fatih Atay, head of the counterterrorism unit of the Ankara Police Department. The affiliated institution indicated by Roman numeral IV in the cover letter was identified as MIT in the attached report.
The paper trail in the report shows that on November 20, 2019 MIT passed the intelligence from Australia to the counterterrorism department at the Security General Directorate (Emniyet) in the capital city of Ankara. The MIT communique was numbered 114444662. The next day, the department shared the intel with the Ankara Police Department using a secure internal communications system called EBYS and filed it under document no. 45599763.56583.(63044)14725-455. The Ankara police conducted their own investigation into the names forwarded by the intelligence agency, compiled a report and submitted it to the prosecutor's office on March 16, 2020 for legal action.
Under the Turkish Code on Criminal Procedure, intelligence notes cannot be presented as evidence in court because of the lack of judicial review and authorization during the collection process. However, it has become common practice under the Erdoğan government to use such information in indictments and court cases filed against critics including journalists and human rights defenders. Turkish authorities often circumvent the laws on the books to make it look like the information was obtained through lawful procedures with a judge reviewing its legality.
The report, developed from the intelligence provided by MIT's clandestine and espionage activities abroad, indicates how Turkish spies penetrated the community of Gülenists in Australia. The Gülen movement is highly critical of the administration of President Erdoğan on a range of issues from pervasive corruption in the government to Turkey's empowering of armed and radical jihadist groups abroad.
Among the names targeted by the Turkish intelligence agency is Mehmet Vehbi Yavuzlar, a 63-year-old Australian citizen of Turkish origin who was involved in volunteer work with the movement in Australia. Before his retirement, Yavuzlar was CEO of the Australian Universal Federation of Education and Culture, a Sydney-based charity that promotes education, diversity and multiculturalism.
The intelligence notes about Yavuzlar refer to a private meeting he attended May 11, 2019 on a college campus in Sydney. Excerpts from his remarks at the meeting are found in the notes. The notes suggest that the Turkish intelligence agency used field agents to monitor the meeting and infiltrators or informants to gather information illegally. The notes were later passed to spy agency headquarters in Ankara and shared with other security branches of the government.
The notes reveal that the activities of Turkish intelligence operatives in Australia were in violation of the country's foreign interference and counterespionage laws, which were toughened in 2018.
The repercussions of having been listed in such intelligence documents can be devastating for Turks abroad. They are subject to arrest if they return home, denied consular services at Turkish embassies and consulates and have their assets in Turkey seized on fabricated charges of terrorism. Their immediate or extended family members who live in Turkey also risk criminal prosecution and imprisonment.
In fact, Yavuzlar, who was named in the intelligence report on Australia, was further investigated by the police and prosecutor in Turkey, the documents show. He faces an outstanding arrest warrant issued by the Istanbul 2nd Penal Court of Peace on trumped-up terrorism charges. His crime is the work he has done on behalf of government critic the Gulen movement.
In Turkey, over half a million people affiliated with the Gülen movement have been put in detention facilities on fabricated terrorism charges since 2014. 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, intelligence services and law enforcement authorities have become abusive tools in the hands of the Islamist government of President Erdoğan to prosecute critics, opponents and dissident. The criminal justice system has often been abused by Erdoğan to persecute government critics, leading to the imprisonment of tens of thousands on false charges.
Erdoğan has come under intense scrutiny in recent years over rights violations and the jailing of political opposition members, human rights defenders, journalists and representatives of civil society organizations. As of April 2020, there were 161 journalists in jail in Turkey, far more than any other figure for the rest of the world.
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.