Last Friday two high profile Turkish journalists appeared in an Istanbul court to answer charges of procuring information vital to state security, political and military espionage, publishing state secrets and disseminating propaganda for a terrorist organization. Serious charges indeed, which relate to an incident where trucks allegedly carrying weapons were seen crossing the border from Turkey into Syria.
What was particularly surprising about the court hearing was that Consuls-General from ten European countries accompanied by their colleagues from Canada and the USA, plus the German Ambassador from Ankara, turned up to observe proceedings. Not content with quiet observation, the diplomatic ladies and gentlemen snapped a selfie of their group which the French Consul-General apparently uploaded to his Facebook page.
Needless to say, Turkey’s President, Tayyip Erdoğan, was not pleased. ‘Who do you think you are?’ he is reported to have demanded, apostrophizing the group in characteristic fashion. ‘This is Turkey. You can do what you like in your consular buildings and compounds, but elsewhere you need permission!’
Well, whatever the rights and wrongs of the charges against Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, Mr Erdoğan is absolutely right here. Foreign ambassadors and consular staff have diplomatic immunity to go about the business of representing their countries’ interests wherever they are posted; and that even includes the right to be whisked out of harm’s way in the event of being caught out doing something they shouldn’t. A blind eye is generally turned to what may or may not be going on behind the walls of embassies and consulates.
It is, however, generally agreed, I believe, that diplomatic rights stop short of allowing privileged foreign personnel to participate in direct political activity, especially when the issue involves national security. If the governments of Western nations believe Turkey (or any other country) is using its courts to stifle dissent, and imprisoning its citizens without due process of law, there are acceptable channels through which to express their disapproval.
Obviously foreign politicians can and do say what they like in the safety of their own countries. Diplomats can seek an audience with the host country’s leadership to make their official views clear. But do they have the right to congregate with others of their species at a high profile trial in an attempt to intimidate, or influence proceedings by their presence? I don’t think so.
Let’s take a hypothetical example. Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, has been holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for three years, knowing that, as soon as he sets foot outside the premises, he will be arrested by the local police and extradited to Sweden to face what he claims are trumped-up charges of rape; and he believes he will thence be shipped to the United States to face more serious charges that could see him imprisoned for life.
Now there are quite a few people who believe that Assange and Wikileaks did us all a great service by bringing out into the open, amongst other things, shocking documents and videos showing how the United States military had been conducting its occupation of Iraq. How would it be, I wonder, if the Turkish Ambassador rounded up a dozen or so like-minded embassy staff from, say, Middle Eastern and South American countries, and hung around outside in a demonstration of solidarity with Assange and his Ecuadorean protectors, while conducting photo ops, and publishing selfies etc on social media? Or if governments of the same nations instructed their diplomats in Washington DC to stage a similar event in support of Chelsea/Bradley Manning, currently serving a 35-year jail sentence for supplying the actual leaks to Assange?
Maybe the US government would laugh. Maybe they wouldn’t – but the fact is, whatever they may think about the state of democracy and freedom of speech in the USA, foreign governments would know better than to interfere in that country’s internal politics. So why do those Western countries think Turkey does not deserve the same respect? Unfortunately, ‘respect’ is the key word here. Those countries are so used to criticizing and belittling Turkey, they seem to feel they are absolved from normal standards of diplomatic behavior.
Moreover, whatever Western governments think about the state of democracy in Turkey, these foreign diplomats were permitted to sit in on a highly sensitive trial. They were not prevented from gathering in a group demonstration clearly intended to express support for the defendants and, by implication, criticism of the legal system and the government of Turkey. I suspect there are not many countries in the world, including some that claim the democratic moral high ground, that would permit such obvious and public meddling in their internal affairs.
And then there is the question of whether these two defendants are merely professional journalists doing their job of keeping the public informed – or whether they had some ulterior motive. Well, surely that is a matter for Turkey’s courts to decide. The story behind the criminal charges does beg some questions that foreign media and governments seem to be avoiding.
A couple of trucks were apparently stopped by police on Turkey’s southeast border, and alleged to have been carrying weapons. The government denied this, claiming the trucks were carrying humanitarian aid. The opposition CHP Party suggested that the government was supplying weapons to forces of ISIS/Daesh and Al Qaeda, and accused them of high treason. Can Dündar, a well-known opponent of Turkey’s AK Party government, and recipient of an award from Reporters Without Borders, published a piece referring to video evidence supporting the claim that the trucks had been carrying arms and munitions.
My questions are: If those were military vehicles crossing the border on official government business, who authorized the search? And who carried it out? And who filmed the trucks’ cargo? And how did the film get into the hands of a journalist in Istanbul? Given that anti-government militants in Syria have been waging a civil war for five years, who has been supplying them with weapons for the fight?
And of course I have some opinions of my own. First of all, assuming the government of Turkey had in fact dispatched those truckloads of weapons to Syria, who would be the most likely recipients? It is outrageous to suggest that Turkey’s government is actively supporting ISIS or Al Qaeda. It is far more likely that, given Ankara’s clearly stated desire for Bashar Al Assad to step down as President of Syria, military support would be directed to the anti-Assad rebels. Second, even if they have been providing some assistance, it is not possible that Turkey alone could have supplied sufficient weaponry to keep this war going for five years. It is well known that military hardware has been channeled through Saudi Arabia and Qatar – and America has made no secret of its desire to see the back of Assad. Finally, it must be true that a person or persons high up within Turkey’s military leaked information about those vehicles to news media, and organized the border search, with the aim of embarrassing Turkey’s government. What’s your definition of high treason?
I would be interested to hear from those Western diplomats what action they think their own governments would take in a similar situation? It has come to light that Turkish police had detained and extradited a Belgian national who went on to carry out one of the recent bombings in Brussels. It seems that Belgian security forces failed to act on the warning received, and they are placing the blame on their Ambassador in Ankara. If their communication channels are really so dysfunctional, and their envoys in foreign countries are acting on their own initiative, it seems to me Western governments need to get their diplomatic personnel under control.