Croatia Mulls Extradition of Political Refugee to Turkey Despite Abuse Risk

Croatia is under pressure to extradite a refugee to Turkey, where he is almost certain to face abuse and torture. Now the minister of justice must decide whether to protect the man's human rights and deny the request, or please the Erdogan regime.

Over the past month, extensive media coverage has allowed us to follow the decision-making process of Croatian institutions in the case of Nurettin Oral, a Kurd with refugee status in Switzerland who nevertheless faces extradition to Turkey.

This is not the first time that Croatian courts have decided to extradite a refugee who has protected refugee states in other countries. In 2012, a Croatian court decided to extradite the journalist Vicdan Özerdem to Turkey, even though she had fled from there after being tortured in prison for participating in public demonstrations. After months of dramatic negotiations, she was finally released from pre-extradition detention and reunited with her family in Germany.

Since this case, Turkey has sought the extradition from Croatia of several refugees, although these requests were blocked by Croatian courts wary of the persecution that awaited the refugees upon their arrival back in Turkey.

But this wasn’t true for Nurettin Oral. The Supreme Court of Croatia upheld a lower court’s decision to allow his extradition, despite the fact that he has been living as a protected refugee in Switzerland, where he has a family and a job, for the past 13 years.

Swiss factor ‘not decisive’

Oral was arrested in July 2018 while traveling through Croatia, based on an arrest warrant accusing him of fighting for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 1999. This organisation has been declared a terrorist organisation by the Turkish government. This was a key factor in Switzerland’s decision to grant Oral refugee status over a decade ago, as authorities there determined that there was a legitimate fear that his return to Turkey would endanger his life and he would not be given a fair trial.

But the Croatian Supreme Court determined that Oral’s status in Switzerland was “not decisive” because “Switzerland is not EU member state, and therefore refugee status given by this country is not important when deciding whether to allow extradition from Croatia.”

This interpretation, delivered by the highest judicial body in the country, was met with considerable criticism. Croatia’s legal obligation to recongise refugee status derives from international treaties that supersede national law. Both Switzerland and Croatia are members of the Council of Europe, and thus both are party to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, Oral’s case was handed over to the minister of justice, who has the final say regarding his extradition. As several of Oral’s fundamental rights would likely be violated if he were to be extradited, including his right to life, to the prohibition of torture and the right to a fair trial, he appealed to Croatia’s Constitutional Court on 16 January for an interim injunction blocking his extradition.

The constitutional complaint describes the nature of the rights violations mentioned above. The threat of torture and inhumane and degrading treatment in Turkey is well established, as is the lack of due process and access to a fair trial. The complaint also points to the fact that Croatia, as a member of the European Union, as the obligation to uphold the “safe third country” rule, which would prevent Croatia from extraditing Oral to any country where he could face persecution or inhuman or degrading treatment.

Turkey torches basic rights

In Turkey, Oral stands accused of committing the crime of “violating national unity and territorial integrity.” This charge was brought under a 1991 law against terrorism and terror-related offences, but it is clear that the charges against Oral are political and not related to terrorism. When considering the evidence against Oral under Croatian anti-terrorism laws, it is clear that there is no legal basis whatsoever to support terrorism-related charges against him.

Oral’s possible extradition is even more troubling considering the current situation in Turkey. Following the failed coup in the summer of 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan implemented a brutal crackdown against anyone seen as opposing his rule.

Reports from human rights organisations inside the country indicate that the right to a fair trial has been completely eroded, and detainees face systematic violations to their human rights from the very moment they’re arrested. The crackdown has been aimed specifically at members of the PKK, who are accused of acts of terrorism merely for their affiliation with the group.

The Turkish government has also suspended the application of the European Convention on Human Rights while at the same time passing measures that insulate the use of torture against detainees.

Extradition delayed

In light of these facts, Croatia’s Constitutional Court issued a temporary injunction against Oral’s extradition until the court can fully consider the case and issue a formal ruling on his constitutional complaint. If the Constitutional Court decides in favour of Oral, the case would be returned to a lower court for reconsideration in light of the Constitutional Court’s ruling. If the extradition is still upheld after a second review, the minister of justice may still overrule the decision and refuse the extradition. Of course, the justice minister does not need to wait on the court and could decide now to deny the extradition request, as the decision ultimately rests in his hands.

Meanwhile, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) sent an inquiry to Croatia at the end of January, noting its concern and asking the Croatian government for an explanation about the case. According to media reports, the Croatian government returned the requested information to the ECtHR. The Court of Human Rights has said it will not consider the case further until after the minister of justice makes a final decision on the extradition.

This would not be the first case of a country exploiting the Interpol international arrest warrant for political purposes. In fact, Turkey is becoming a frequent abuser of this mechanism as it attempts to corral dissidents beyond its borders. To address this, Interpol did implement new mechanisms to void arrest warrants that are politically motivated, but this has not stopped Turkey and other countries from continuing to seek such arrests.

Liberties member the Centre for Peace Studies has provided recommendations drawing attention to the fact that refugees are not even aware that their names might show up on arrest warrant which exposes them to legal insecurity and risk of return to the countries where their lives and freedoms would be at risk, should they leave the countries where they got protection.