Dogan Akhanli

Erdogan’s Extraterritorial Ambitions: The Case of Dogan Akhanli


BERLIN — Deciphering the behavior of the President is a challenging task, and not only in the United States. Narcissism, paranoia and megalomania are the terms the psychiatrist would use to describe the brand of personality disorders driving the erratic behavior that has become routine not only in the White House but also in the thousand-room presidential palace in Ankara. And the clinical diagnosis would be on the mark. That said, it fails to explain the political calculation that the affected subject has contrived to rationalize his outrageous actions. Yet, no doubt, there must be a method to the madness. The actor is after all a political animal.

Consider the recent moves by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with regard to Germany, which, from any sane objective standpoint, he should consider his closest European ally and trade partner. Erdogan has been on the warpath with Germany ever since the Bundestag (Parliament) last year passed a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide. He has consistently sought provocations and conflict.

After refusing German parliamentarians access to German troops stationed in Incirlik, which led Germany to redeploy them to Jordan, he ruled against a similar request to visit troops in Konya, and a major crisis was averted only after German legislators were allowed to do so in the context of a NATO delegation. Shortly thereafter Erdogan, addressing a mass rally of his supporters, issued a call, or better, an order, to German citizens of Turkish descent not to cast their votes in the September parliamentary elections for the ruling CDU or SPD parties, or for the opposition Green Party, on grounds that they “are waging a campaign against Turkey.” When German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel denounced the bid as unacceptable interference into the internal affairs of a sovereign nation, the Turkish head of state (again in a speech to a rally of supporters) responded with cheap ridicule. “Who are you,” he asked Gabriel rhetorically, “to talk to the President of Turkey? You should know your place!” i.e. he should address his remarks to his ranking counterpart, the foreign minister. He slammed Gabriel for “trying to teach us a lesson,” adding, “How long have you been in politics? How old are you anyway?” Gabriel, he said, was “a catastrophe.”

The Long Arm of Turkish “Justice”

Days later, it became clear that the huffing and puffing was only the prelude to an act of far graver import. On August 19, on the basis of an international arrest warrant issued by Turkey, and implemented through Interpol, Spanish police arrested a German citizen of Turkish descent during his vacation in Grenada. Dogan Akhanli, a well-known novelist, playwright and human rights activist residing in Cologne and Berlin, was awakened that Saturday morning by loud banging on the door of his hotel room. Three Spanish policemen in bullet-proof vests and armed with submachine guns, asked him for identification, and, having ascertained he was the same person Interpol was pursuing with a “Red Notice”, slapped handcuffs on him and hauled him off to prison.

From Grenada, he was transferred to Madrid, and then, thanks to the prompt intervention of his lawyer, Ilyas Uyar, and German political authorities, released the following day, on condition he remain in Spain for 40 days and report weekly to the authorities. During that ominous number of days, the Turkish authorities will have to supply documentation to substantiate their demand that he be extradited to Turkey for trial.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

The mood in Berlin was livid. Foreign Minister Gabriel spoke to his Spanish counterpart by phone, urging him to deny Turkey’s demand for extradition. Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “This is unacceptable, we cannot allow international organizations like Interpol to be misused for something like this.” It is due to such cases, she said, that Germany had “massively changed its Turkey policy,” adding that “we have to settle this conflict.” Her spokesman Steffen Seibert expressed the suspicion that the Turkish authorities were using Interpol against political critics. He said he was particularly upset because the “Red Notice” had been used against Akhanli. “Here we are dealing with a German citizen!” he said. The SPD’s chancellor candidate Martin Schultz denounced the political motivation behind the outrageous arrest: “Anyone who takes the liberty of criticizing Mr. Erdogan is stigmatized as an enemy of Turkey and is persecuted. This is a new level of escalation. Therefore, I believe that one answer must be that we say to Turkey: further and deeper economic relations are not possible as long as Turkey behaves in this manner.” Cem Özdemir, Green Party leader, called for a review of security cooperation with Turkey, given that it is no longer a state based on the rule of law. Other political figures echoed these sentiments.

What Crime?

Judging by the character of the security forces deployed to apprehend Akhanli – three armed policemen at his door and two police cars with six to eight policemen waiting outside – one might assume the suspect were a dangerous felon, especially in the heightened security atmosphere reigning in Spain in the wake of the vile terrorist attacks that had just shaken Barcelona. Akhanli himself told the press that he thought the Spanish police must have been surprised. They acted correctly, he said, but evidently, they had been prepared to apprehend a terrorist, and when they found him and realized he was a normal person, they must have been shocked.

They must have been told that he was, if not a terrorist, at least a dangerous criminal, a murderer. For this is what the arrest warrant asserts. In 2010, when he travelled to Turkey to visit his terminally ill father, he was apprehended at the airport and arrested. He was then put on trial, charged with involvement in a case of robbery and murder from 1989. After months in jail, the case finally came to court and, on grounds of insufficient proof, he was acquitted. Three years later however the ruling was reversed, and an arrest warrant followed. Now Turkey was activating it through Interpol.

At the time of the trial, human rights activists mobilized an international solidarity campaign for Akhanli, which organized a delegation of observers at the trial, among them this author. The message that was stressed in that campaign, and what remains valid in the current situation, is that the only “crime” Akhanli has committed is that he has told the truth.

Dogan Akhanli was born in a Turkish village in the northeast and moved to Istanbul with his brother to attend school as an adolescent. He opposed the military regime in the 1980s and spent two years in prison as a result. He succeeded in fleeing to Germany, where he was granted political asylum and then German citizenship in 2001. Since then he has been engaged, not in party politics, but in civil society and, as an intellectual, he has dedicated his literary efforts to shedding light on the true story of the Armenian genocide. One of his novels that appeared in 1989-1999 in Turkish and was translated into German, “The Judges of the Last Judgment”, deals with the Armenian genocide. It was the first novel by a Turkish author to do so. In 2016, his novel The Days without Father appeared in German, a work that relates the drama of a politically persecuted exile in Germany.

Perhaps the most important work is the play he wrote as a monodrama, “Anne’s Silence.” The play was conceived by German-Armenian actress Bea Ehlers-Kerbekian, who performed it on the stage in several cities in Germany as well as Armenia. It tells the story of a Turkish-German girl who discovers that her mother, whom she knew as a Turkish Muslim, had actually been an Armenian genocide survivor. The play was an important contribution to the discussion process that unfolded in Germany around the genocide, which eventually led to the Bundestag resolution.

Akhanli has also been active for years in civil society initiatives involving Germans, Turks, Armenians and Kurds aimed at working through the common history and reaching recognition of the genocide, as a prelude to reconciliation. He organized and led week-long seminars in Berlin (which I also participated in), dealing with the genocide and the Shoah. He has been honored for his literary and civil society engagement, and was invited to be the keynote speaker at the St. Paul’s Cathedral in Frankfurt commemoration of the genocide on April 24. Recently he was among the founding members of the German-Turkish-Armenian Friendship Society. In short, if there is any German intellectual of Turkish descent who has fought for recognition of the Armenian genocide, it is Dogan.

That is, in short, the crime that the Erdogan establishment wants to punish him for.

The Time is Ripe

But then, the question arises, why should Erdogan and company revive their witch hunt against Dogan Akhanli now? Here we move from the psychoanalytical to the political.

Erdogan himself may have betrayed the secret, when he spoke about the extradition of persons in Germany to Turkey. Referring to the German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel, jailed in Turkey, Erdogan had quipped that maybe the Germans would now comply with his demands for handing over persons he claimed were behind the attempted coup last summer. In July, the mass tabloid BILD-Zeitung reported that, according to Foreign Ministry sources, Erdogan had discretely inquired whether Germany would be interested in swapping Yücel for two former Turkish generals allegedly in Germany. The response, BILD wrote, was “Naturally we cannot embark on such a trade.” Now it appears confirmed that Erdogan had planned to use the arrests of enemies of Turkey abroad (like Dogan Akhanli) as pawns in a game of political chess with his European partners. If they will not hand over to Turkey those persons he and his regime have identified as coup plotters (=Gülenists), then he will continue to arrest persons he considers enemies, even if they reside in European countries.

Turkey expert Rainer Hermann penned an editorial on August 21 in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung entitled, “Erdogan’s Hostages,” in which he stated that the Akhanli case would set a precedent: if Spain were to agree to his extradition to Turkey, then “all critics of Erdogan would have to be afraid of travel.” A day later the same newspaper of record carried an interview with Ilias Uyar, Akhanli’s lawyer, in which he stated: “I believe that the Turkish legal authorities are trying to set an example: you are not safe anywhere. Turkey perhaps assumed that Akhanli would be in detention Sunday. That would have been a very strong sign to demonstrate their power. No one is supposed to feel safe anywhere.”

Erdogan’s cheerful disregard for national sovereignty has prompted suggestions that he may seriously style himself as a new sultan, with territorial ambitions stretching westwards across Europe, a suggestion that would be coherent with the vision of a “new Ottomanism” that his AKP has embraced.

Spain’s Response

What is going to happen next? On August 25, the Red Notice was formally lifted, but it is not clear why. That decision may be made on technical grounds: since it signifies the request to pursue and arrest the sought individual, once Akhanli had been found, there was no reason to maintain that level of alarm. Or, it may be lifted if it is found that political motivations were behind the issuance of the alert. Interpol headquarters in Lyons gave no reasons to the press for their action, and there was no statement issued by the Spanish authorities either. The German Foreign Ministry expressed it was “glad that Interpol cancelled the Red Notice.”

Whatever the thinking behind the move, Akhanli has still not been allowed to leave the country. Reached by telephone by this author on August 29, he explained that he had to wait for the procedure to be completed by the Turkish and Spanish authorities, which might be long. He said he would stay in Madrid, was in good spirits and the German Foreign Ministry was taking good care of the matter.

As announced at the time of the arrest. Turkey would be given forty days to provide the documentation to prove he should be extradited. It will be up to the Spanish authorities to decide whether or not the documentation meets the requirements. The German government has already made clear that it is totally opposed to any such move, and has signaled this view to the Spanish government in several ministries. As representatives of the Justice, Interior and Foreign ministries told reporters on August 21, any state working with Interpol can decide how it reacts to arrest warrants and actually the organization conducting the search should examine the possibility of a political motivation behind the warrant. In Germany, decisions at every stage of the process are both juridical and political: one must ascertain whether or not the criminal charges are valid, and then evaluate politically, whether the accused person is being politically persecuted, what the consequences of an extradition might be for that person’s safety, and so forth. The ministry spokesmen were unanimous in excluding the possibility that Spain would extradite him.

Given the precedents in this case — that Akhanli has a history of juridical and political persecution at the hands of Turkish legal authorities — and the current sad state of affairs inside Turkey today, where prisons are overcrowded with critics, dissidents, journalists, teachers, “Gülenists” who have been arbitrarily jailed, it is indeed very unlikely that Spain would bend under pressure. When asked for his prediction, lawyer Uyar said, “A trial against Akhanli according to the rule of law is impossible in Turkey.” To depict how disastrous the human rights situation there is and how paralyzed the judiciary is, he pointed to the Hrant Dink murder trial: “… during a pause in the proceedings of the trial, a judge was arrested.” If European standards hold in this case, Uyar said he did not believe it would come to extradition.

The entire affair has left many open questions regarding the legality or lack thereof of Turkey’s initiative. If the international arrest warrant was reactivated, and even on “Red Notice” denoting the highest degree of urgency, why were the German authorities not informed? Did Interpol in Ankara contact Interpol in Madrid directly, instead of going through the central agency in Lyons, in which case other states would have been informed? How did the Spanish police know what hotel Akhanli was staying in? Were Turkish intelligence agents involved? In short: was the law broken somewhere along the way? And if so, by whom?

Truth Will Tell

It may well be that the clumsy attempt on Erdogan’s part to take justice into his own hands will boomerang, as have so many other of his ill-conceived political antics. For sure he is the one who has mud on his face; editorials and cartoons have made him the laughing stock of the political circus. The story has dominated TV and press coverage since the arrest; on August 27, it was the topic of a prime-time talk show, with participation of nationally prominent politicians, including Foreign Minister Gabriel, connected by video. The political establishment in Berlin has united in denouncing the abuse of power demonstrated by Ankara and the question of how to revise German and EU policy downwards vis-à-vis Turkey has become a leading issue in the ongoing parliamentary election campaign. Friends, colleagues, intellectuals and human rights activists have rallied in Dogan’s defense.

As for the victim of this judicial travesty, Akhanli told German TV reporters that he was shaken by the events, shocked to find that even in the EU he was not safe. He had no doubts about the motivation behind events; “I have expressed criticism of Turkey’s politics and Turkey’s past, and they didn’t like that. They want to silence me,” he said, “but at sixty, I am not going to remain silent.” In a press conference after his release from custody, he said it would be “a juridical scandal” if he were extradited. Erdogan, he said, displayed “a despotic attitude” and “believes he can do whatever he wants.” Erdogan “has nothing to do with an elected state president.” Asked what he might do during his forty-day forced vacation in Spain, he said, “Who knows? Maybe I will write a book.”

(Quotations from German press sources have been translated by the author.)

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: