In yet another indication that the Turkish judiciary, under the influence of Turkey’s Islamist rulers, has gone soft on violent jihadists, Turkey’s top appeals court threw out the conviction of a Bosnian jihadist.
Begzad Spahic, a 42-year-old national of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was convicted of terrorism involving the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Turkey. Yet the conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeals (Yargıtay) despite the fact that no appeal was ever filed by Spahic.
He was one of seven people including two children who were detained by gendarmes on patrol from the İnanlı outpost on the Turkish-Syrian border on June 10, 2017 as they were trying to cross into Turkey illegally. In the area where the suspects were detained the gendarmes found a backpack in an olive orchard that contained a suicide vest with 3 kilograms of explosives and three Russian-made hand grenades.
None of them wanted the authorities to contact their consulates in Turkey, and all admitted that they belonged to ISIS. Three of them including Spahic were formally arrested on June 14, 2017 on charges of possession of illegal explosives and membership in ISIS. They were indicted on June 28, after which their trial at the Kilis High Criminal Court got underway.
At their ninth and final hearing on January 30, 2018, in a surprise move the prosecutor said his office had decided to drop the explosives charges while keeping the terrorism charges on the table. The prosecutor also asked the court to reduce the possible sentence for Spahic because he pleaded guilty and to release all the defendants pending appeal after sentencing. It was unusual for the prosecutor to go soft on suspects who were caught with explosives and a suicide vest.
Supreme Court of Appeals’ ruling that overturned the conviction of ISIS fighter Begzad Spahic:Turkey_supreme_court_overturned_ISIS_Conviction
In a unanimous decision, the panel of judges went along with the prosecutor’s request and acquitted them of the explosives charges. Instead, Kazakh national Ahactacnr Pozdyva (Anastasia Pozdeyeva) and Azeri nationals Gülnur Şirmemedova and Nazanın (Nazemim) Seynalov (Zeynelova) received jail sentences of six years, three months on terrorism charges, while Spahic and another suspect named Serkan Aliyev got four years, two months. The court also ruled for their release pending appeal.
The verdict was not appealed at a regional appellate court by any of the defendants. Some were deported after their release. Ahactacnr and her 6-year-old daughter Anisa Pozdeeva were deported to Kazakhstan on February 9, 2018. Spahic, who thought he would be deported as well, decided to challenge the initial court ruling and asked for a retrial, which was rejected by a judge who ruled that the time limit for an appeal had expired.
In the meantime Spahic remained out of prison despite the fact that he was wanted by Bosnian authorities and was the subject of an Interpol Red Notice. After several months of lobbying by Bosnian officials, the Turks decided to move against him, and a Turkish court ruled on May 10, 2018 for Spahic’s extradition to Bosnia. But the judgment was not immediately enforced.
For some reason, Turkish authorities waited until September 23, 2019, to get a temporary detention warrant for Spahic until he was handed over to Bosnia. His challenge of the warrant failed on appeal on October 8, 2019. The extradition finally took place on February 11, 2021, and he was arrested on a warrant issued by the a municipal court in Zenica. The case against him in Bosnia is still pending.
Ten months after he was extradited to Bosnia, Turkey’s top appeals court ruled to overturn Spahic’s conviction, claiming that an appeal had not been filed in due time because he and the other suspects were foreigners and did not understand how the system worked. It asked the local court to retry Spahic and the others on similar charges.
A separate investigation was launched in Turkey into Spahic’s traveling companion Pozdyva after her cellmates told the local prosecutor that she had admitted to them that the suicide vest was hers and that she wanted to blow herself up in Turkey. The new investigation would prove to be futile considering that Turkey had already deported her to Kazakhstan.
This ISIS case represents yet another example of how the bulk of successful ISIS convictions, already rare in the lower courts, have been thrown out by senior judges who appear to follow the lenient guidelines of the Erdoğan government when it comes to cracking down on jihadist groups.
Court papers show that Spahic pleaded guilty to ISIS charges and as a result received a reduced sentence:Turkey_supreme_court_overturned_ISIS_Conviction1
The political pressure on judges and prosecutors who were asked to go easy on jihadists began in 2014, when the Erdoğan government started removing judges, prosecutors and police chiefs who were investigating radical groups in Turkey.
The dismissed officials were accused of links to the Gülen movement, led by Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who has been an outspoken critic of the Erdoğan regime due to pervasive corruption and Turkey’s aiding and abetting of jihadist groups in Syria and Libya.
More than 130,000 civil servants have been dismissed by the government with no effective judicial or administrative investigation, 4,560 of whom were judges and prosecutors and were replaced by pro-Erdoğan, Islamist and neo-nationalist staff. As a result of the massive purge, the Turkish judiciary and law enforcement authorities have become tools in the hands of the Islamist government of President Erdoğan and his allies.
Thousands of militants, both Turkish and foreign, have used Turkish territory to cross into Syria with the help of smugglers in order to fight alongside ISIS groups there. Turkish intelligence agency MIT (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı) has facilitated their travel, with Kilis, a border province in Turkey’s Southeast, one of the main crossing points into ISIS-held territory. Human smugglers were known to have been active in the border area, although Turkish authorities often overlooked their trips in and out of Syria.
There have been some cases, however, in which ISIS suspects were detained and indicted on terrorism charges. But very few resulted in convictions in the lower courts. The decision of Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals to overturn rare cases of conviction of suspects on ISIS terrorism charges sets an important precedent in Turkey’s criminal justice system. The ruling will effectively render to zero the chances of convicting an ISIS member on terrorism charges in the lower courts.
Turkish officials do not disclose the number of successful convictions in ISIS cases and decline to respond to parliamentary questions asking for such information. Instead, they often float figures on the number of detentions and arrests, which in many cases result in release and acquittal.
Erdoğan announced on October 10, 2019 that there were around 5,500 ISIS terrorists in Turkish prisons, of which half were foreign nationals. Yet, on October 25, 2019 Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül stated at a press conference that there were 1,163 ISIS arrestees and convicts in prison.
Responding to a parliamentary question on July 21, 2020, Gül said 1,195 ISIS members were in prisons either as convicts or suspects in pretrial detention. Of these, 791 were foreign nationals, he added. He declined to say how many had actually been convicted.