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« Sweden offered safety to many who fled persecution by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Now, he’s demanding their return as Stockholm’s entry fee to NATO » reports Teri Schultz in Deutsche Welle.

Bulent Kenes thought once he’d made it to Sweden, he wouldn’t have to worry anymore. The former editor of « Today’s Zaman » newspaper had already been prosecuted for criticizing the president, and after the failed coup against Erdogan in 2016, he knew the crackdown on political opponents would be harsh. So he smuggled himself out of Turkey.

In Stockholm, Kenes told DW, he started a new life. « I [took] a big breath and said, ‘OK, now the danger remains behind.' »

But that relief was temporary.

Danger follows exile

In February, Swedish authorities informed Kenes that the Turkish government was demanding his extradition, and that he would need to justify in court why he needs protection in Sweden. He says his case is currently before Sweden’s supreme court.

On May 18, the stakes got higher when the Turkish government announced it would block Sweden and Finland’s invitation to join NATO unless the two countries took a number of actions, including extraditing lists of people whom Erdogan deems « terrorists. » 

Though the Turkish leader ultimately allowed the two countries to begin the accession process with a trilateral memo signed at the NATO summit in Madrid in June, he also affirmed that Sweden had promised to send more 73 people — or else the alliance door will remain shut.

Memorandum of misunderstanding?

There’s no such commitment listed in the memo, and the Swedish government denies it has said such any such thing. It’s unclear what names may have been given to Swedish authorities as part of Turkish demands.

Bulent Kenes is sure of one thing: Whatever « list » exists, he’s very likely on it. Googling on his computer, Kenes quickly finds his name among Ankara’s « terror suspects. » He says the regime has accused him of so many crimes, it would be a physical impossibility that he’s be able to commit them all. He also denies the allegation that he is a Gulenist, a follower of the US-based religious leader Fethullah Gulen whom Erdogan has labeled a terrorist.

Kenes maintains he is « just a journalist and academic » who dares to be critical, and that he is not affiliated with any political organization.

« I think it is unnecessary for the Swedish government to put this matter into the judicial process, » he says wistfully. « But they did. »

He says under normal circumstances, he wouldn’t doubt a positive outcome in his case, but « I’m not 100% sure right now. Since Sweden changed its traditional neutrality [to join NATO], it’s a huge change, it’s a pragmatic change. I think there is a risk for some unexpected results. »

Lawmaker also a target

Kenes is not alone in his concerns. Amineh Kakabaveh is a Swedish parliamentarian with Kurdish Iranian roots, who tells DW she’s « very very worried » about Sweden’s current dealings with Erdogan.

She fears there will in fact be deportations or extraditions of vulnerable individuals to life-threatening situations in Turkey despite the Swedish government’s pledges they won’t change current practices.

Kakabaveh herself has long been a target of Erdogan’s ire. He’s referred to her as a « terrorist » for her support for Kurdish groups. She says that in recent days, the government-controlled Turkish media had labeled her as a member of the Kurdistan People’s Party, the PKK, which is officially designated a terrorist organization by all European Union governments. She rejects this charge. The Turkish ambassador to Sweden went so far as to demand Kakabaveh’s extradition, even though she’s not Turkish.

The lawmaker says her phone has been ringing nonstop with calls from « hundreds and hundreds » of people worried both about her and about their own security, especially in case of travel outside of Sweden. She warns that being on one of Erdogan’s lists makes that « very dangerous » because foreign governments friendly to him could seize them abroad.

PKK’s prominent presence

Although few people seem to think Sweden’s generous asylum policy will change due to Erdogan’s demands, there is one complaint where the trilateral memo signed in Madrid may require Swedish authorities to take steps they currently aren’t.

Point 5 states: « Finland and Sweden commit to prevent activities of the PKK and all other terrorist organisations and their extensions, as well as activities by individuals in affiliated and inspired groups or networks linked to these terrorist organisations. Türkiye, Finland and Sweden have agreed to step up cooperation to prevent the activities of these terrorist groups. »

At one weekend demonstration in Stockholm where Kakabaveh was among the speakers, the event was awash with PKK flags.

Analyst Aras Lindh of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs says he believes supporters of the PKK will continue to challenge the Swedish government’s commitment and ability to carry out this aspect of the agreement with Turkey.

Lindh suspects Erdogan may well drag this dispute out as he runs for reelection next June. « This plays very well into the Turkish narrative, » he explains. « I think it’s an attempt to shift focus from the very high inflation that makes it very hard for people to live everyday life, and for the upcoming presidential and parliamentary election » where Erdogan’s AKP party is struggling.

But Lindh adds, « I do think that Sweden will continue to process extradition requests based on Swedish law and international law. I don’t think we will see any change when it comes to this, and I also do think that Turkey somehow understands this. »

Turkish elections are still nearly a year away. And that is a long time for Sweden to wait on the question of NATO membership.

Kenes hopes he won’t have to wait that long to know his own fate. He’s expecting to learn by September whether he can stay safely in Sweden or whether, as he puts it, « dignified life comes to an end » with deportation.

Deutsche Welle, July 16, 2022, Teri Schultz, Photo/Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

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