August 12, 2016

Gülen Supporter's Expulsion Shows Primacy of Fear in Bulgarian Politics

Bulgaria on Wednesday became the first EU member state to extradite a supporter of US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen to Turkey after the latter had been denied political asylum in the last days of July. In theory, the move should not be called an “extradition”, of course: this is what authorities keep repeating, stressing it was no response to the existing request for Abdullah Büyük coming from Ankara which has been demanding that he be sent back – a request that has already been rejected twice.

But it was an extradition. What happened violated both the letter and the spirit of the law to avoid - judging from the Prime Minister's words - angering third parties.

The businessman in his forties who had stayed for months in Bulgaria was first labelled by Bulgarian officials a man with fake documents, then a threat to national security and, subsequently, someone about whom police had “disturbing” information from various sources – Interpol included - to justify his handover to Turkish authorities, not to mention the rejected political asylum request.

The public outcry that followed his handover was quite well-deserved, though.

Büyük's complicated relationship with Bulgarian authorities

The owner of a domain trading company applied for political asylum on February 24, after arriving in Bulgaria from Turkey where he managed to flee custody. He soon faced an extradition request from his homeland over his alleged affiliation to a terror group and terror activity.

Waiting for the rulings (extraditions requests are handled by the judiciary, while a committee with Bulgaria's Vice President is in charge of political asylum applications), he also applied for protection with the State Agency for Refugees. He took the latter step in March, but surprisingly withdrew his documents a month later, accompanied by lawyers.

In the meantime, both the Sofia City Court and the Sofia Court of Appeals ruled Büyük should not be extradited to Turkey.

The appellate court concluded that "the extradition request... was aimed at persecution of the person in question based on his political convictions." It cited the fact that Büyük shared many of the views of Gülen, who is known as "a vocal critic of the governing party in Turkey". Among its motives was the fact that the terrorist organization which he allegedly belongs to is not "in the list of persons, groups and organizations with regard to which... measures are applied for fighting terrorism". To date, months after this ruling, the Gülen movement, which Turkey refers to as “FETÖ”, is still part of no “terror list” on a national, EU or global level.

Two weeks after the failed coup attempt in Turkey, the country's Foreign Minister publicly announced there had been a “traitor” in Bulgaria, whom later Turkish national media described as “FETÖ's safe box”. He said a delegation was to arrive in Bulgaria to insist again on his extradition, even though Justice Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva made clear that the court had had its say on the request submitted so far (and that, in short, the answer had been “No”). Commenting on the development, Turkey's Ambassador to Bulgaria refrained from elaborating, but told Novinite his country was "engaged in intense talks with Bulgarian authorities on these and related matters."

“Not my responsibility”

Büyük was forcibly escorted to the Turkish border a few days later, in a surprise statement from authorities. It was later revealed the procedure had been carried out rather hastily, in breach of national legislation, which required the presence of the National Ombudsman and representatives of human rights organizations. The lack of proper documents on behalf of Büyük was immediately cited as a reason, but the Interior Minister soon replaced that motive with the notion of a “national security threat” - as though a man who had spent months in Bulgaria to the knowledge and scrutiny of authorities (extradition requests and political asylum requests, after all, require full scrutiny from institutions) had suddenly become a security threat within a few days' time in August. “Disturbing” data, apparently received from either Interpol or Turkish authorities, was also added to the picture. To be sure Büyük was led out of Bulgaria for a good reason, the refusal to grant him political asylum, on July 27 (or before the public statement of Turkey's top diplomat), was revealed.

Asked about why the procedure was carried out in a rush, Bachvarova said it had been a prerogative of the Migration Directorate with her ministry. Social media went abuzz with comments blaming the Interior Ministry for its flawed response and for Bachvarova's reaction. Other officials' comments also sparked outrage: the ministry's deputy chief secretary (the second most senior position among its “professional” leadership) asserted that Büyük could appeal the decision from Turkey, a statement interpreted as an attempt to shun responsibility.

The idea of Bachvarova and more senior government officials not being aware of the procedure is, however, a bit exotic as the Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov (whose own political career began after years of work as Chief Secretary at the Interior Ministry) has always kept personal oversight on important matters relating to the institution. The claim that only the Migration Directorate was aware of how such a crucial bilateral matter (one that Turkey is negotiating on and sees as an issue of key importance) was being dealt with can only raise eyebrows.

Borisov himself appeared on TV less than 48 hours after the expulsion – but after numerous contradicting statements on the circumstances that led to it. Although he denied any possible political motives behind the move, he made clear that Bulgaria was ready to sacrifice a lot to avoid tensions with Turkey that would trigger what has been described as an “inflow of migrants”. Suggesting his “big goal” was to avoid tensions with Turkey and a long-feared move that it could supposedly “unleash” thousands of migrants into Bulgaria, even without naming the reasons for handing Büyük over, he was more than eloquent:

"We are not obliged in any way, I am not saying [I am acting in order] to avoid any provocation - I am not saying that was the driving force when institutions worked to take such decisions. But with Turkey we have to try to build the best possible relations. Even if the price is that they take all of our heads away."

He sought to raise fears by mentioning up to "500 000 migrants" that could suddenly be left in Bulgaria as Europe is tightening border controls and Turkey warns it might not abide by the migrant deal it struck with the bloc in the spring. Even discussing here the prospect of such numbers arriving to Bulgaria either from Turkey or back from Europe would be an insult to readers' intelligence.

The letter and the spirit of the law

Earlier this summer, on a separate matter, a Bulgarian court declined the registration request of a party led by Lyutvi Mestan, the former head of ethnic Turk-dominated DPS party, saying its aconym ("DOST", meaning "friend" in Turkish but standing for Democrats for Unity, Solidarity and Tolerance) and the predominance of people with Turkish names (but with Bulgarian citizenship) did not violate the letter of the law but did breach its spirit - an expression that back then left the public bewildered. The ruling was later overturned by a higher instance.

Needless to say, in the case of Abdullah Büyük, with the exception of the peculiar haste in carrying through the procedure, which contravened several legal provisions, little could be disputed in the decision that Büyük should leave the country. It does not violate the letter of the law, with no formal ground for him to stay – but it does violate the spirit. It was an extradition that was not called an extradition, but the fundamental circumstances were not changed by the word one is using. The wording had no relation whatsoever with the events that unfolded. That no rights observers were contacted by authorities (the issue that violated "the letter") leave no doubt the matter had to be dealt with urgently.

That the Vice President and the courts differed in their opinions on whether Büyük would face political persecution in his country is quite a natural scenario in a democratic state. One has no right whatsoever to blame the Vice President for snubbing at the Sofia Court of Appeals' conclusions about political persecution that Büyük might be facing – even considering the changed political circumstances in Turkey, which were different in end-July than the ones in the spring, she has the right to her judgment as someone dealing with political asylum under the Constitution. Just as a Turkish court has the full authority to submit extradition requests for the person in question, being a legitimate judicial institution in its respective country.

However, both Margarita Popova's decision and Boyko Borisov's comments can pose some questions from a moral point of view. While the former did not take into account a ruling that raises concern for an individual's rights upon their return to Turkey and de facto enforced a rejected extradition request, under changed circumstances in the country of destination, the latter showed readiness to act ruthlessly in the name of political stability (at the end of the day, this is what underpins all European governments' concerns with the migrant inflow) or relied on fear-mongering to justify his actions. Or both.

Bulgaria has been trying to portray itself as a country between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the migrant crisis and relations with Turkey. However, the way it handled the case of Abdullah Büyük can be ranked somewhere between cowardice and fear-mongering, as the latter was used to justify the former.

To make matters worse, by selectively adhering to some procedural and legal issues and completely ignoring others to solve a bilateral affair in the most convenient possible way, it spat in the face of that “rule of law” the current government has so desperately been claiming it is trying to enforce.

Bulgaria indeed complied with Turkey's request. Half-heartedly, it then admitted to doing so out of sheer fear.

Published on Novite, 12 August 2016, Friday