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Turkey’s Crimes Against Humanity Under ICC Spotlight

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
Burhan Ozbilici

Turkey is facing difficult times, really difficult times. The numerous earthquakes which struck ten provinces in the southeastern part of the country killed tens of thousands, made 1.25 million homeless and destroyed entire cities. Pre-earthquake Turkey was already amid a crippling economic crisis, rapidly eroding the country’s middle class, typified by high inflation (85 % in 2022). If all this was not bad enough, the country is now under a different but not altogether unfamiliar spotlight: The International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague has been asked to investigate the extent to which the Turkish government has committed crimes against humanity. 


To recap, the ICC is a “permanent international court established to investigate, prosecute and try individuals accused of committing the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole: the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression.” According to the Guardian newspaper, legal experts are accusing the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan of having carried out “torture, state-sponsored kidnapping, and wrongful imprisonment of about 200,000 people.” 

This is not altogether surprising to hear, given the undemocratic trajectory that Erdogan has taken since the 2016 coup attempt. Erdogan blames the coup for toppling him entirely on Fethullah Gulen and his followers. Gulen – a recluse cult leader who resides in the United States, was a close political ally of Erdogan. The two political heavyweights fell out over policy differences, resulting in an all-out war between the two Islamist leaders. Although the full extent to which Gulen was involved in the attempt to topple Erdogan is murky, Erdogan, since 2016, has mobilized the full resources of the state to go after Gulen and his supporters. 

Inside Turkey, this war has resulted in the firing of suspected Gulen followers, who have been branded as 'terrorists,’ from public and private organizations. Many of the movement’s elites have been detained, arrested, and/or jailed. This has been accompanied by asset seizures and the closing of the Gulen movement’s media networks, banks, and schools. The ICC’s investigation is particularly focused on this last point. The Gulen movement has a vast network of schools and universities, spanning the globe from the United States, Asia, Africa, and the Balkans. The Erdogan government has made a concerted effort to kidnap and forcefully return as many affiliates of the Gulen movement as humanly possible. Turkish officials have been identified as carrying out what the ICC calls “enforced disappearances” in many countries, including Kenya, Cambodia, Gabon, Albania, Bulgaria, Moldova, Mongolia, and Switzerland. This is significant because Ankara is not a signatory state that falls under the jurisdiction of the ICC. However, because these kidnappings have occurred inside of signatory states, the ICC is exploring the possibility of holding the Turkish state accountable. 


Let’s not mince words. The Gulen movement is a nefarious entity. For decades, it has actively worked to undermine the rule of law and democratic institutions—all hoping to divest Turkey from its secular aspirations and create a state society modeled on Islam. Gulen likely did play a key role in the 2016 coup designed to bring down a democratically elected government. That being said, this movement was enabled and relied upon by Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). For the first ten years of AKP rule, Erdogan utilized the Gulen movement’s extensive resources domestically and internationally to build his political empire. In Washington, for example, the AKP used the Gulen movement’s extensive ties to members of Congress to drive its foreign policy ambitions.

The fallout between Gulen and Erdogan reminds us that the latter is not interested in holding the former to account before a court of law. Even if Erdogan wanted to, this would be hard from a practical standpoint: Gulen resides in Pennsylvania, and Ankara has failed to establish a burden of proof for Gulen’s culpability in masterminding the coup attempt that could result in his extradition to Turkey. Instead, Erdogan has turned to thuggish tactics of kidnapping associates of Gulen from different parts of the world. This should not be tolerated. Not only is kidnapping illegal, but it also violates the rights of sovereign states. 


Erdogan is portrayed as a ruthless ruler uniquely focused on consolidating his regime. Since 2016, it has been firmly established that Erdogan has eroded the rule of law to a very high degree. Freedom House has categorized Turkey as a country that is “not free.” While there is much to document Erdogan’s status as an autocrat domestically, there is less written about the long list of crimes he has likely committed against humanity. If Erdogan loses the upcoming elections on May 14, in addition to being answerable to domestic crimes, he may also have to face the ICC.

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