Author: Dr. Emre Turkut
““I have been given infinite authority over you. This state used a private plane for you. This place is unlike any other place. Everyone here does their duties professionally. You cannot get out of here if you do not talk. We can make you suffer for months or even years without causing harm to your physical well-being. Will you talk?” he asked. I told him that I would not speak under any circumstances, especially in such a place where I got tortured by people that I did not know.” – Ayten Ozturk
These lines are excerpted from Ayten Ozturk’s 12-page defense presented during the hearing at the Istanbul 3rd High Criminal Court. Ozturk, a left-leaning individual, stands accused of DHKP-C membership.
She was apprehended on 8 March 2018, at Lebanon Airport by Lebanese police, subsequently handed over to Turkish authorities with a sack over her head, and forcibly brought to Turkey after six days of incommunicado detention on 13 March 2018. On the same day, she found herself in an undisclosed detention center, where she endured severe forms of torture, including intense beatings, electrification, and other instances of sexual violence. She was finally handed over to the police at midnight after enduring six months of such treatment, on 28 August 2018. While abduction is typically associated with men, Ozturk is a notable exception, being the only known woman subjected to abduction and torture during the post-coup period in 2016.
Yet, in a rather surprising twist, on 7 November 2023, news broke that Ayten Ozturk had been acquitted of all charges. It’s a perplexing turn of events—having been abducted from Lebanon in violation of numerous fundamental rights, she is now declared not guilty by a court. The sheer inconsistency is unbelievable. While this verdict is undoubtedly a source of relief for Ozturk, offering a semblance of justice, it also sheds light on the broader issue. The case of Ayten Ozturk, much like that of countless other victims facing Turkey’s transnational repression, serves as a stark indication of the deep-rooted crisis within the entire governance structure of Turkey, including its judiciary.
Turkey’s ‘Night and Fog’ Regime
The controversy over Turkey’s authoritarian long arm is well-earned and bears examining in closer detail. I would like to illustrate in this piece that Turkey’s transnational repression exhibits disconcerting parallels with the Nazi Government’s Night and Fog regime (“Nacht und Nebel” in German) targeted alleged members of anti-Nazi resistance in the years during World War II, in terms of context, purpose and substance.
At the most basic level, it is ironic that both Turkish post-coup policies and Nazi practices unfolded within the framework of a state of emergency. As I examined elsewhere, the state of emergency declaration following the notorious Reichstag fire in 1933 provided a veil of legal legitimacy for Hitler and his Nazi party to suspend a wide range of liberties under the Weimar Constitution which eventually led to the most strident authoritarian regime in Western history. Similarly, in the wake of the 15 July attempted coup, Turkey declared a nation wide state of emergency and adopted a “shotgun” approach to human rights curtailment, which involved severe repression of virtually all dissent based, in many cases, on a very tenuous connection with the raison d’être of the state of emergency. There is now credible evidence that during the two-year emergency rule, the Turkish Government has shown a wanton disregard for its legal commitments under international human rights law (see here, here, and here). The resulting extensive crackdown at home has gradually extended beyond national borders, with emergency powers utilized on a transnational scale to track, hunt, and capture dissidents who it has labelled as terrorists, mostly alleged members of the Gülen Movement and the Kurdish minority. Turkey issued numerous extradition requests for these individuals also exploiting Interpol’s mechanisms including red notices, diffusions and Stolen-Lost Travel Document Database. Most Western countries have rejected extradition requests either on the grounds of being politically motivated or due to concerns about the lack of judicial independence in Turkey. Already in 2020, five UN Special Procedures jointly addressed Turkey in a letter, presenting clear evidence of the systematic practice of state-sponsored extraterritorial abduction and forcible return of Turkish citizens from various countries. The letter detailed how victims were initially spied on, followed by incommunicado detention, pressure, humiliation, and torture before deportation. Similarly, the 2022 US State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in Turkey highlighted the government’s coordination, often through illegal means, with multiple authoritarian states to carry out the abduction, rendition, and forcible return of at least 100 individuals to Turkey. Reportedly, Turkey signed bilateral security cooperation agreements with some of these countries, containing broad and vague references to combating terrorism and transnational crime, facilitating the rendition of individuals. However, as emphasized by Freedom House, most cases involve corruption, bribes, and the co-optation of host state institutions. It is alarming that Turkey is now leveraging its diplomatic influence and position in international bodies, including its NATO membership in the context of Sweden and Finland’s NATO accession, to advance its transnational repression agenda. The implementation of such coercive state policies has led numerous observers to rightly argue that Turkey’s contemporary political regime is authoritarian, not democratic.
Moreover, both policies were formulated and implemented through an excessive reliance on far-reaching emergency powers. On December 7, 1941, Wilhelm Keitel signed an emergency decree, later authorized by Adolf Hitler, permitting Nazi authorities to apprehend, abduct, and forcibly return individuals in the German-occupied territories in Europe alleged to be threatening German security under the cover of “night and fog.” Approximately 7,000 individuals are believed to have been spirited away to concentration camps pursuant to this decree. Upon being transferred to concentration camps, these prisoners were compelled to wear jackets bearing the acronym “N.N.” (abbreviation of Nacht und Nebel in German). Although precise figures are not known, reports indicate an exceptionally high mortality rate among these individuals. Notably, this regime blatantly bypassed the then-applicable regular judicial procedures and numerous standards governing the treatment of prisoners. On 30 July 1944, Hitler issued a more drastic decree known as “Terror and Sabotage” that expanded the original “Night and Fog” decree enabling the Nazi authorities to treat all violent acts perpetrated by non-German citizens in the occupied territories as acts of terror. And, as detailed earlier, the Turkish authoritarian long reach has similarly, yet unsurprisingly, sidestepped a broad range of fundamental rights and constitutional guarantees in what is characterized as a counterterrorism campaign in pursuit of a highly authoritarian political agenda.
The stated aim of both policies is also comparable. In the Nazi case, Hitler believed that dealing with resistance in occupied territories, especially in France, was too cumbersome and lenient. Although the Nazi regime had established special military tribunals to try and sentence resistance members, including imposing the death penalty, these courts were overwhelmed. Nazi officials were suspicious that military courts might refuse to cooperate, and they felt that more effective measures were necessary to suppress resistance. At the same time, the Nazi regime had resorted to numerous intelligence tactics, including surveillance, intimidation and threats, but these measures seemed insufficient. In response to heightened anti-Nazi resistance and in an attempt to bypass cumbersome military procedures, the Nazi regime implemented the decree as a more direct and effective means to respond, intimidate, and apprehend alleged resistance members. Similar coercive strategies have been employed by the Turkish state. Turkey’s “state-led coercion-by-proxy strategies” to monitor, control and collect intelligence about dissidents in exile are well documented. A Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Resolution (No. 2509) in 2023 clearly highlighted a long list of tolls of Turkey’s campaign of transnational repressions including mobility controls, passport cancellations, abuse of extradition proceedings and Interpol’s red notices, citizenship-stripping and anti-terror financing measures and co-opting other countries. In cases where these tactics prove inadequate, as outlined earlier, Turkish authorities have increasingly resorted to rendition, abduction, and the forcible return of political dissidents since the failed coup in July 2016.
In conclusion, it is undeniable that the abductions and disappearances of individuals associated with the anti-Nazi resistance far surpass, in many aspects, the similar fate of Turkish dissidents in recent years. Yet, there are also common threads: Both then and now, individuals are targeted as state enemies and subjected to severe forms of punishment without due process. After all, authoritarian regimes, then as now, often extend their repression beyond borders to target exiled dissidents, using different strategies of repression, legitimation, and co-optation. From this perspective, both Turkish and Nazi policies serve as stark examples of how state conduct can be driven by blatant political expediency. In the Nazi case, the Night and Fog regime emerged as the long-sought effective measure to target and intimidate a large number of individuals amid the evolving Holocaust. Similarly, in the Turkish case, as mentioned earlier, transnational repression has become another link in the chain of the Turkish Government’s extensive, arbitrary, and disproportionate attacks on Turkish citizens suspected of political opposition.
Postscript: For those intrigued by the subject, I highly recommend the documentary ‘Night and Fog’ by the French filmmaker Alain Resnais which is available on YouTube. It stands as one of the most impactful documentaries on the Holocaust that I have ever watched.