The UN Committee against Torture (CAT) found multiple violations by Azerbaijan in the abduction of a Turkish national who was forcibly taken to Turkey by Turkish intelligence agency MIT.
The committee, which communicated its decision on January 10, 2023, concluded that Azerbaijan violated the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment for collaborating with the Turkish spy service.
The illegal clandestine operation that violated international law was denied by Baku in its submission to the UN but hailed as a major intelligence operation by Turkey, whose state news service publicly admitted it was conducted by MIT.
The case involves the rendition of a man identified as Mehmet Gelen, a schoolteacher who is affiliated with the Gülen movement — a group that is critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on a range of issues and which has been the subject of a relentless witch-hunt by the Turkish government. Gelen was secretly taken to the airport in Baku on December 28, 2018 without notification to his lawyer or family, handed over to Turkish intelligence agents and put on a plane back to Turkey.
He was under international protection by the UN at the time of the abduction. The UN Committee asked Baku for a halt to all proceedings against him, and an Azerbaijani court had ordered his immediate release from temporary detention. Yet Azeri officials not only defied the court ruling but also ignored the UN communications and unlawfully turned him over to Turkish agents.
After reviewing a complaint filed by a nongovernmental organization on Gelen's behalf and the response by Baku, the UN body concluded that Azerbaijan had violated Article 3 of the UN convention, which states that "no State Party shall expel, return ("refouler") or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture."
As was feared, Gelen suffered verbal and physical assaults for four days in police custody in Turkey after his return and was threatened with the kidnapping of his wife, who was also in Baku at the time. On January 4, 2019 he was arraigned, formally placed under arrest and put in pretrial detention.
Torture and ill-treatment in detention and prison facilities in Turkey have been widespread in the last decade, and such instances were well documented by the UN as well as human rights organizations. Members of the Gülen movement bear the brunt of the crackdown on civic groups in Turkey, with over half a million perceived Gülenists facing legal action in Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been targeting followers of the Gülen movement, inspired by Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, since the corruption investigations of December 17-25, 2013, which implicated then-prime minister Erdoğan, his family members and his inner circle.
Dismissing the investigations as a Gülenist coup and conspiracy against his government, Erdoğan designated the movement as a terrorist organization under Turkey's abusive anti-terror laws and began to target its members. He intensified the crackdown on the movement following a false flag coup attempt in 2016 that was orchestrated by Turkish intelligence to criminalize the group. The Gülen movement, primarily focused on science education, interfaith dialogue and social inclusiveness, has never been involved in any violence or terrorism since the 1960s, when it was first launched by Gülen in the western province of Izmir.
The UN Committee also reprimanded Azerbaijan for violating Article 22 of the convention for blatantly disregarding the committee's repeated requests in December 2018 to refrain from deporting Gelen to Turkey, where he was feared to be subjected to torture and ill-treatment. The request was based on what was called as interim measure by the UN, which bars states party to the convention from moving forward with deportation until the case is settled.
States who approved the UN convention should comply with the committee's request for interim measures under Rule 108, in good faith, and non-compliance is considered a violation of Article 22 of the convention. Azerbaijan not only ignored the UN body's communication but also has not provided any explanation for its failure to respect the committee's requests, either, according to the ruling.
What is more, Azerbaijan failed to provide sufficiently specific detail as to whether it had engaged in any form of post-expulsion monitoring of Gelen and whether it had taken any steps to ensure that the monitoring was objective, impartial and reliable, according to the UN Committee.
The UN body further noted that Azerbaijan has an obligation to provide redress for Gelen including adequate compensation resulting from the physical and mental harm caused.
"It should explore ways and means of monitoring the conditions of the complainant's detention in Türkiye, including his access to counsel and medical care, within the framework of existing agreements with Türkiye, in order to ensure that he is not subjected to treatment contrary to article 3 of the Convention, and inform the Committee as to the results of such monitoring," the ruling stated.
Gelen's rendition to Turkey was hailed by Turkish President Erdoğan on the day Gelen was handed over to Turkish spies in Baku. "There are some positive developments in Azerbaijan. We can give you the good news tonight or tomorrow," he told reporters without mentioning Gelen's name. The next day, the state-owned Anadolu news agency published a short report that described MIT successfully capturing Gelen in Baku after a lengthy period of surveillance. Four days later, the agency published another story informing of his formal arrest.
Gelen was working as a teacher for a school run by the Cag educational institutions, or Istek schools, in Azerbaijan, affiliated with the Gülen movement, also known as Hizmet. The movement and its institutions in Azerbaijan came under pressure after the Erdoğan government's successful lobbying efforts to shut down the schools. The residence permits of schoolteachers and other staff members were not renewed by the Azeri migration authorities under orders from President Ilham Aliyev, a close ally of Erdoğan.
Fearing deportation to Turkey, Gelen and his wife registered as asylum-seekers with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Baku. Concerned about his life and possible kidnapping by MIT, Gelen tried to leave Azerbaijan for a safe country in Europe on November 3, 2018 but was stopped in Belarus and sent back to Azerbaijan.
On December 20 he was summoned by the State Migration Service in Baku ostensibly for an interview but was detained on an arrest warrant issued by Turkey when he arrived. His lawyer unsuccessfully challenged a detention ruling by the Khatai District Court, which had ordered his detention for 30 days. However, the verdict was overruled on appeal, and the Baku Court of Appeals vacated the district court's ruling and ordered Gelen's release. Azerbaijani officials did not comply with the appeal court's decision and instead handed Gelen over to MIT agents.
The abduction, forcible disappearance and extrajudicial transfer of government critics abroad by Turkey has been criticized by the international community. According to UN experts, since 2016 the Erdoğan government has forcibly transferred more than 100 Turkish nationals to Turkey. No other perpetrator state has conducted such a large number of renditions during the same time period.
A report by Freedom House on global transnational repression also revealed the intensity, geographic reach and suddenness of the Turkish government's campaign targeting dissidents abroad, noting that Turkey has become number one among countries that have conducted renditions from host states since 2014.
The government's campaign has mostly relied on renditions, in which the government and its intelligence agency MİT persuade the relevant states to hand over individuals without due process, using various methods such as bribery, political bargaining, economic concessions and lucrative trade contracts. The victims have faced a number of human rights violations including arbitrary arrests, house raids, torture and ill-treatment during these operations.
According to recent official statements by the Turkish interior ministry, more than 110 alleged members of the Gülen movement have been brought back to Turkey as part of the government's global campaign.
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.