Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu confirmed that Turkish diplomatic and consular missions around the world have systematically spied on critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and collected information on Turks living abroad.
“… Espionage activities. Everyone is doing what they want [in other countries]. Intelligence gathering is the duty of diplomats,” Çavuşoğlu told Turkish journalists on February 16, 2020 following the Munich Security Conference.
Çavuşoğlu is the highest-ranking Turkish official to accept the transformation of Turkish embassies and consulates into intelligence hubs where information is gathered and critics and their organizations are profiled. His remarks also highlight the fact that diplomats assigned to Turkish embassies have officially been instructed by the Turkish government to conduct spying operations.
“If you look at the definition of a diplomat, it is clear. Intelligence officers also serve as accredited [diplomats] in missions. There are accredited officers from the German intelligence agency in Turkey, and MİT also has accredited staff [in Germany]. That is completely transparent. Intelligence gathering and information collection is a fact. The important point here is that they carry out [their activities] in accordance with the Vienna Convention [on diplomatic relations] and transparently,” the foreign minister stated.
Çavuşoğlu was also asked about Turkey’s clandestine spying on Erdoğan critics in Germany, during a joint press conference after his meeting with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. He told Turkish reporters that “a German journalist asked a provocative question [at the joint press conference]. We responded. It was a question influenced by conspiracy theories of terrorist organizations FETO and the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party]. What would that be? MİT [the National Intelligence Organization] is spying on them. There is no need for secret intelligence gathering on them. They carry out their activities openly in Germany, the US and in other Western countries.”
“The FBI is currently conducting an important investigation in the US. They are sharing information on FETO with us. On the other hand, the activities of PKK members are obvious. Racist attacks on our mosques are taking place. PKK members are attacking our citizens and collecting money through donation or coercion. They [Kurds in Europe] provide financial support to the PKK. You have witnessed how they attacked [people] in airports and workplaces following [the Turkish military’s] Operation Peace Spring. They [journalists] now don’t touch on those but just bring up the PKK and FETO. Of course, we gave them the right answer yesterday,” he said.
The immunities and privileges of diplomats and consular staff are governed by international conventions. Diplomats enjoying the privileges and immunities described in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations are under a duty to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving state and to avoid interfering in its internal affairs as detailed in Article 41. Similarly, consular staff are granted limited privileges and immunities by the Vienna Convention on Consular Affairs, but host state authorities can start investigations and prosecute any of the personnel if they perpetrate crimes inside or outside the consulate premises according to Article 43 of the convention.
Following a 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, new intelligence officers were sent to diplomatic missions by the government. In that regard, the Turkish Interior Ministry appointed counselors for interior affairs to Turkish embassies in 71 countries in February 2018. In fact, Turkish embassies already had diplomatic staff from MIT. The official mandate of these personnel, defined as intelligence officers accredited as diplomats by the Turkish foreign minister, is to coordinate law enforcement cooperation between Turkey and the host nations; however, Çavuşoğlu’s remarks reveal that their real mandate is to spy on critics instead of contributing to the development of bilateral relations between agencies.
It is clear that Turkish diplomatic missions violate the domestic laws of receiving states and the principles of international law by conducting unlawful information-gathering campaigns and sweeping intelligence operations. In the aftermath of the coup attempt on July 15, 2016, some Western countries launched investigations into the spying activities on Turks and Turkish organizations overseas by Turkish Foreign Ministry personnel, representatives from relevant authorities, imams and intelligence officers accredited as diplomats.
In 2018 the Swiss attorney general launched a criminal inquiry into spying on Switzerland’s Turkish community by Turkish diplomats. The Swiss foreign ministry confirmed that the accusations outlined in the criminal proceedings were not diplomatic tasks and that therefore the people concerned couldn’t avail themselves of immunity. Two of them had to leave Switzerland as a result of the investigation.
In addition to the diplomatic representatives, Turkish-linked mosques and religious associations are also involved in the Turkish government’s spying operations in Europe. Turkish organizations in several European countries were raided by police due to their spying on persons suspected of being members of the Gülen movement in accordance with the instructions from Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate.
Nordic Monitor previously revealed official correspondence from the Turkish Foreign Ministry that proved how diplomats collect information on the activities of Erdoğan critics, profile their organizations and list their names as if they were part of a terrorist organization. The correspondence includes two CDs, the first of which contained information about the leading critics of the Erdoğan regime, while the second CD involved details of the structure of the movement in each country and a full list of people believed to be affiliated with the movement. The document confirmed major spying activity conducted by Turkish diplomatic missions that appears to be unprecedented in its scope and extent.
It is obvious that files fabricated in Turkish embassies triggered numerous criminal prosecutions on charges of terrorism. In Turkey, over half a million people affiliated with the Gülen movement have been put in detention facilities in the last two-and-a-half years alone on similar charges. In some cases, host country organizations that were duly authorized and licensed under local law were also described as terrorist entities by Turkish diplomatic missions in clear contradiction with the perspective of local authorities.