Spain's Arrest of Erdoğan Critic Sends Wrong Signal on Civil Liberties

The recent arrest in Spain of a critic of the Turkish government sends a message that police forces in EU countries are still all too willing to do the bidding of authoritarian regimes.

Doğan Akhanlı, 60, an outspoken critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was arrested in the early morning hours of August 19 in Granada, Spain, after the Turkish government requested his arrest through Interpol.

Akhanlı has written extensively on the human rights situation in Turkey. He was born there but has been a resident of Germany since 1992, attaining citizenship in 2002. While living in Europe, he has refused to keep quite about the erosion of human rights and the rule of law in his country of birth.

Are dissidents safe in the EU?

There can be little doubt that it is for his words and his writings that Turkey sought his arrest. It's an arrest that sends a deeply troubling message to all dissidents of authoritarian regimes who live legally in the EU: You may not be safe here.

But despite this, Spanish police arrested him on a so-called red notice issued by Interpol, an international organization that coordinates national police forces. The red notice was issued at the request of the Turkish government, which put out an arrest warrant for Akhanlı four years ago.

Turkey essentially used Spanish police forces to do their dirty work – arrest a critic of the government because he wasn’t afraid to speak up. And it isn't the first time, even in the last month: in early August, responding to another Interpol notice, Spanish police arrested Swedish-Turkish journalist Hamza Yalçın at Barcelona's airport. The Turkish government had issued an arrest warrant for him on charges of insulting Erdoğan. Arrests such as these should be unthinkable in the EU.

"It is terrible because I thought that I was safe in Europe. I thought the Turkish arbitrariness and arrogance cannot reach Europe," Akhanlı said following his arrest. "They simply abuse international law, whatever it is good for. It has nothing to do with the rule of law."

The arrests of Akhanlı and Yalçın are so disturbing because their crime was speaking out against Erdoğan's abuse of power and grave human rights violations. In effect, they were arrested by the police forces of an EU country for exercising his basic right to freedom of speech.

Policing the police

Interpol is not supposed to seek politically motivated arrests. Although the organisation, based in Lyon and made up of 190 member countries, has no oversight, it told the EU Observer that it examines each red notice request to ensure that it does not have "a political, military, religious, or racial character."

But it is difficult to see Akhanlı's arrest as anything but political in character. Turkey has spent the summer rounding up and jailing journalists who speak ill of the government. While it's not entirely clear, the outstanding arrest warrant for Akhanlı was very likely issued for his writings on the mass killings of Armenians by Turkish forces and the more recent rights abuses under the Erdoğan regime.

And similar arrests will likely continue in the EU as long as there is no proper oversight of Interpol. The agency's general assembly meets just once a year and is composed entirely of policing experts – people with the same background as current agents. Decisions passed by the assembly need only a simple majority, meaning objections by a member – or quite a few members – can be easily ignored.

This contrasts sharply with Europol, the EU-only police coordinating body, which must have its budget approved by the European Parliament, and MEPs also have a say in senior appointments. Moreover, the European Court of Justice provides judicial scrutiny over Europol's work.

No strong push for reform

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel both spoke out against the arrest of Doğan Akhanlı, but neither went so far as to offer specific reform ideas for Interpol with an eye to greater oversight.

Part of EU states' intransigence stems from the fact that their own police forces have carried out similarly dubious arrests in the recent past. In 2015, German police arrested an al-Jazeera journalist on an Egyptian arrest warrant. Belgium last year arrested Maxime Azadi, a Kurdish journalist whose detention was, like the Akhanlı's, requested by Turkey through Interpol.

The European Commission and human rights groups have issued statements condemning the use of red notices to arrest political opponents. But if real change is to come to Interpol, increased pressure must be brought by individual Interpol members themselves – Germany, Belgium and other influential nations must refuse to carry out such arrests and must strongly oppose them, and not only when it's one of their citizens wearing the handcuffs.

Until that happens, there can be little hope for reform, and little hope that arrests similar to that of Akhanlı will stop. This means that dissidents of Turkey, Russia and other authoritarian members of Interpol must continue to watch their back, even in the EU.

But even after his arrest, Doğan Akhanlı refuses to be intimidated: "They will never silence me."