My 14 months of prison pain: How Turkey pursued a regime critic after two decades

Ozgur Tanis suffered a stroke during his detention in a top-security UK jail

If Turkey’s prosecutors are to be believed, student activist Ozgur Tanis was in the mountains of central Turkey in 1999 where he strangled two villagers who accidentally stumbled on his band of armed fighters.

Mr Tanis contends he was about 4,000 kilometres away in south London, yet with little more than an allegation the Turkish authorities secured his arrest.

Ankara’s pursuit of Mr Tanis cost the Kurdish rights campaigner 14 months of his life in a top-security prison in the UK and his long-term good health. While behind bars, he suffered a stroke and was halted from pursuing the political activism that had forced him to flee Turkey in the first place.

The legal campaign waged against him has highlighted flaws in an international system of extradition when states shun accepted rules of evidence and illustrates the lengths the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan will go to muzzle critics abroad.

The criminal pursuit of Mr Tanis, 45, finally ended last month when a British judge ruled Turkey’s unfair judicial system meant he would not receive a fair trial if sent to Turkey. The electronic tag that tracked his movements while he was on bail was finally removed last week.

“It was a long, long painful process,” said Mr Tanis, who fled to the UK after he was tortured in Turkey. “I almost died in prison.

“But it’s not just that. My freedom was taken away by a country where I had been given permission to live after they recognised my bad experiences in Turkey. Suddenly everything is turned upside down.”

Documents seen by The National indicate that Turkish military intelligence identified Mr Tanis in 1998 as an armed militant of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) operating under the cover name of Serdar in the rugged territory around the central city of Sivas.

They accused him of blockading a road and stopping motorists at gunpoint to seize money, identity cards and other documents in 1997. Two years later he was accused of strangling two villagers with rope in the mountainous area surrounding Sivas while on a PKK mission.

But Mr Tanis says they have the wrong man.

The only evidence is alleged confessions of PKK militants. Mr Tanis says he has never been a member of the PKK – which is recognised as a terrorist group by Turkey, the US and the EU – and had never been near the scenes of the alleged crimes. And, crucially, immigration documents show he left the country before the killings.

He was arrested in 1998 in Turkey, tortured over several days and told he would die if he did not stop his political activities, he said in an interview at his south London home. He was only freed after the intervention of a politician from an opposition party who looked into his case. Fearing continued harassment, Mr Tanis hastily fled the country.

He first travelled to Germany in 1998 where his asylum claim was assessed and rejected. Mr Tanis then paid a people smuggler and arrived in Dover in the UK in December 1998, where official papers show he claimed asylum.

He was summoned to a series of meetings throughout 1999 by immigration officials and was not allowed to leave the country while his claim was processed. He was eventually given British citizenship in 2010.

At a court hearing, his lawyer Ali Has showed a time-stamped photo purporting to show Mr Tanis with family members who live in the UK at a restaurant in Clapham, south-west London, about a month before the alleged double murder in the Turkish mountains.

Mr Tanis believes that Turkish prosecutors had not known he had left the country when he was first accused of murder, but pressed ahead with the attempted extradition, even after details of his asylum claims emerged.

Lawyers for Turkey suggested the PKK smuggled him back into the country from London before secretly bringing him back to Britain again – in between meetings with immigration officials.

“It’s totally ridiculous to suggest I smuggled my way back there to commit a crime thousands of miles away,” said Mr Tanis. “Those guys are not short of fighters in the mountains.”

He was not arrested at his London home by British police until September 2019, despite being identified as a suspect for more than 20 years.

Mr Tanis said he repeatedly visited Turkey’s embassy in the intervening years, including to defer his military service and register his marriage. The alleged crimes were never mentioned.

Mr Tanis, married with two children in the UK, now suspects he was identified by spotters at anti-Erdogan events, or his anti-regime messages to hundreds of people on Facebook were noted by the authorities.

Turkey is on a list of 35 non-EU countries, including the US, Russia and Israel, that do not have to supply evidence of crimes to pursue an extradition case. It merely has to show that the suspect is accused of something that would be a crime in both countries.

Lawyers are allowed to argue suspects will not receive fair trials and could face unacceptable prison conditions, rather than pick apart the evidence.

For Mr Tanis – who faced a double murder allegation – the magistrate ruled he should be detained in custody owing to the seriousness of the offence while the extradition case was fought. “The bigger the accusation, the better the result they can get,” he said.

Mr Tanis was held at London’s grim 19th century Wandsworth jail before being transferred to Belmarsh, a top-security prison that is home to terrorists and some of the country’s most dangerous prisoners.

He was billeted there with Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder, wanted in the US for hacking and disclosing classified information.

While Mr Tanis was detained he suffered a stroke and was taken to hospital, accompanied by five prison officers. He remains on medication.

After 14 and a half months in detention, success in his extradition battle meant he was bailed, while Turkey mulled an appeal. “I had a good result yet in a way I was also a victim,” he said.

His case highlights the concerns raised by a British parliamentary inquiry in 2015 about countries, including Russia and Turkey, who are not required to provide evidence to seek extraditions.

“It’s pretty noticeable how both countries pursue people pretty relentlessly,” said Prof Bill Bowring, an expert in human rights law, who told a court hearing Mr Tanis’s case that his chances of a fair trial were “very remote indeed”.

“They absolutely don’t give up,” he told The National. “They don’t have to prove that the evidence is there – they don’t have to give any evidence at all.”

Theresa May, UK home secretary at the time, told the committee the government was reviewing whether the right designations were in place “in terms of countries on the list and those not on the list but which might be added to it”.

But the system has not changed for Turkey, despite a crackdown on overseas dissidents since a 2016 coup plot.

The plot also resulted in more than 4,000 judges and prosecutors being dismissed or moved and hundreds of lawyers investigated for criminal offences.

Despite the concerns of some lawyers, Mr Has said demanding that Turkey supply evidence for extraditions would not limit the abuse of the system.

They do abuse the system. It’s a way of Turkey having their shadow over the diaspora community.
Ali Has, British lawyer

“We know that they fabricate things. There’s no limit to what they could provide. It may make that worse,” he said. “They do abuse the system. It’s a way of Turkey having their shadow over the diaspora community.”

British courts have rejected a string of extradition requests from Turkey because of fears of politically motivated prosecutions and rights abuses. They include the case of media tycoon Hamdi Akin Ipek, whose newspapers and television stations were confiscated by Turkish officials for criticising Mr Erdogan’s regime.

The Arrested Lawyers Initiative, a Brussels-based group of human rights lawyers, said last year that under the leadership of Mr Erdogan, Turkey sent at least 570 extradition requests to 94 countries.

“Erdogan’s foes, or those who dissent politically and who live abroad, have been facing a judicial harassment risk,” said the report. “Getting them extradited to Turkey is at the top of the agenda of the Erdogan regime’s international policy.”

Turkey has also faced accusations of abusing the Interpol network of "most wanted" suspects to pursue dissidents around the world.

Interpol was reported in 2019 to have rejected 646 Turkish arrest warrants with 462 of them targeting supporters of the alleged mastermind of the 2016 coup, while another 115 were for alleged PKK members.

“Turkey’s attempts to extradite political opponents living abroad are well documented," said Bruno Min, legal director at Fair Trials, a global criminal justice watchdog.

“It’s vital that individual states and organisations such as Interpol put safeguards in place to prevent these abuses.”

Updated: July 3rd 2021, 8:29 AM