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Special Report: The tortured activist whose fate tells Turkish protesters: don’t seek refuge in Greece


Bulut Yayla, a Turkish archaeology student and left-wing activist, says he travelled to Greece in April this year to escape imprisonment and torture he endured under the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Once in Athens he tried to seek asylum as a political refugee to escape an international arrest warrant issued against him after being accused of having links with an outlawed Marxist organisation.

On 30 May, Bulut, 26, left the restaurant where he worked, in the central Athens neighbourhood of Exarhia, to meet some friends He never made it. At around 9pm, witnesses say they saw five men beating him near the restaurant, forcing him into a car and driving off. Two days later, his family got a call from Turkish authorities, informing them he was in their custody, in a high-security prison. The head of Greek police later confirmed the car’s licence plates showed it was a police vehicle.

“He was seized, handcuffed and shoved by force in a car where they closed his eyes, nose and mouth, and tortured him,” Bulut’s lawyer, Evrim Deniz Karatana, wrote in an email to The Independent after seeing her client in Turkey. She says that throughout the long journey from Athens to Istanbul, he could hardly breathe as a black hood and a ski mask were placed over his head. Once at the Greek-Turkish border, she claims his abductors forced him to crawl under a border fence, where the Greek team handed him over to an English-speaking team. He was beaten again.

According to his lawyer, Turkish police joked as they pulled the hood off his head, saying: “Welcome to our country.” Bulut was now in the town of Edirne, close to the Greek border. A few hours later, a team from Turkey’s anti-terrorist squad picked him up and drove him to Istanbul where his lawyer and parents were informed of his detention. “As a refugee he should have access to asylum procedure from the first moment, and the Greek state should protect him from Turkey and not leave him helpless,” said Spiros Kouloheris, of the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), which processes asylum claims in Greece. “The way he ended up in Turkey is very vague.”

Mr Kouloheris underlined that irrespective of what crimes Bulut is charged with, he is entitled to defend himself by legal proceedings instead of being arbitrarily detained. So far, both countries deny any involvement in his transfer from Greece to Turkey.

Mr Erdogan is currently trying to reign in mass protests that have spread across Turkey over the past week – a large-scale show of anger against what many view as his government’s authoritarian policies. The protests gained momentum after police used tear gas against a peaceful sit-in in Istanbul’s Gezi Park on 31 May, objecting to the demolition of the park for a commercial development.

Bulent Arinc, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister, apologised for police violence towards peaceful protesters this week, calling it “wrong and unjust”. Mr Erdogan, however, has vowed to continue the development project, and blamed extremist elements for orchestrating the protests. “We will not give away anything to those who live arm-in-arm with terrorism,” he said. 

As the protests continue, Bulut’s abduction in Greece has shed light on the way the Erdogan government deals with opposition. The Turkish authorities accuse Bulut of having links with the outlawed Marxist-Leninist DHKP-C group, commonly known as Dev Sol in Turkey, which has declared responsibility for a series of bombings, and has been branded a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU.

Bulut’s lawyer says the evidence to back those claims is his attendance at May Day protests, his public calls for free education and his membership of Turkey’s Youth Federation, a left-wing revolutionary youth organisation which opposes membership to the EU and alliance with the US. Nearly 1,000 students are now being held in Turkish prisons on similar charges to Bulut, lawyers say. In February, a French-Turkish student was jailed for five years for “spreading terrorist propaganda” after taking part in a left-wing protest.

The Greek courts are investigating Bulut’s case. In a statement, the police said there was no record of his presence in the country and that he never made a request to seek asylum. The statement says although the GCR submitted a request on his behalf to begin the asylum proceedings, Bulut never showed up at the interview – which the GCR disputes.

“I sent the fax to request [the appointment to begin] the asylum procedure but… we never got any reply from the authorities,” says Ms Kouloheris. This left Bulut without the protection given to registered asylum-seekers under international law.

A Greek opposition MP has suggested Turkish and Greek secret services co-operated to seize Bulut. “I suspect that we have Greek and foreign secret services involvement to kidnap Yayla,” Syriza party MP Dimitris Tsoukalas told The Independent. He has raised the issue in parliament and asked the Minister of Public Order to explain what happened. “This [kidnapping] was carried out to show that Greek courts should be kept out of this. Because when the Greek judiciary is involved they tend to acquit [Turkish political activists]. Turkish authorities wanted to stop this and resolve this – so they kidnapped him,” he added. “The message from Turkey is clear: I can do everything, I can take you out of Exarhia and lock you up in a Guantanamo-style prison.”

Christodoulos Giallourides, an international politics professor from Panteion Athens University, says Greek and Turkish secret services have witnessed a rapprochement in their relations since 2000.

"There is very good co-operation between the security forces of both countries on terrorism," he explains.

"In Turkey, someone who is pursuing human rights and liberties violently is considered dangerous - just like the youth in the streets of Turkey now trying to abolish the autocracy of Erdogan."

In March, on an official visit to Istanbul by Greece’s Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras, he and Erdogan signed 25 bilateral deals and expressed their volition to combat terrorism.

Earlier this year, reports in the Turkish press had emerged claiming that members of Turkish terrorist groups are receiving training in camps near Athens. Although the reports were strongly denied by the Greek authorities, Erdogan addressed the issue during Samaras' visit saying that there will be a 'furthering collaboration' and "joint steps against terrorism."

Authorities in Greece denied The Independent’s request for an interview, adding: “The case is already under investigation. Therefore there can be no statement as long as this procedure is still ongoing.”