In the early hours of May 24th, a Turkish journalist seeking political asylum fled his home country. He managed to cross the Evros, a river that slices through the border of Greece and Turkey.
The journalist, Murat Çapan, was in exile, attempting to escape a nearly 23-year prison sentence on charges of terrorism that stemmed from his work as an investigative reporter and editor at the now-defunct news magazine Nokta.
But his freedom was short-lived. According to an account of his story made public by the Hellenic League for Human Rights, Çapan and two friends were apprehended by police in the Greek border town Didymoteicho; there, they were reportedly denied the ability to apply for asylum and put in an unmarked white van, which they were told would take them to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
It didn't. Instead, the van reportedly dropped the group off in a deserted field adjacent to a river, where five gunmen bound their hands and placed them in an inflatable boat. Two of the men then reportedly guided the group across the river to the Turkish border, near a military outpost, and abandoned them. According to the report, a group of Turkish police officers quickly discovered them and apprehended Çapan. He's currently in prison.
That account, along with reports of other asylum seekers who were also allegedly deported from Turkey, prompted the League to prepare a lawsuit, which it will file this week in Greece's administrative region of Thrace. It demands the government investigate what it calls coordinated attempts by the Greek government to illegally kidnap and deport Turkish asylum seekers.
"When you look at the names of people who [were deported], and the names of people who have been condemned by the Turkish justice system, [they're the same]," says Lefteris Papagiannakis, a board member of the Hellenic League for Human Rights. "So, you know, we're not just throwing names around without any type of link. You have many [pieces of] circumstantial evidence that something is happening."
He says the organization has evidence that links those five gunmen to the Greek government, and believes that Çapan's legal and political history with the Turkish government makes his forced deportation all the more suspicious. If the human rights league is successful in doing so, it would amount to proving that Greece violated international law. It is illegal to forcibly return asylum seekers to a country where they claim their life or freedom is endangered. And, under Greek law, new arrivals are supposed to first be processed by law enforcement before their asylum status is decided. (The Greek police and interior minister have denied involvement in the deportation.)
"You have many [pieces of] circumstantial evidence that something is happening."
But in the last year alone, UNHCR has recorded 40 cases of pushback—that is, instances where the government has allegedly discouraged refugees from applying for asylum, though not necessarily amounting to refoulement, or their forced removal from the country—in Greece alone, says Leo Dobbs, a spokesperson for the Greek branch of UNHCR. The agency has also called on the Greek government to investigate the alleged refoulement.
Papagiannakis believes that Greece faces a uniquely challenging set of political circumstances that has made the government susceptible to what he describes as mounting pressure from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's regime to the Greek government. He cites the country's ongoing negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for another round of bailout funding, plus its role in managing the continent's refugee crisis, as sources of stress that have culminated in little patience to stave off demands that Turkish refugees be sent back to the country.
"We find it very, very difficult [to believe] that type of operation [happened] in such a sensitive area, without the army or the police knowing anything, and so we think that the—this is my personal opinion—I think that [the government is] fed up. They say, 'OK, the hell with it, just send them back.' Just something like that," he says.
Greece has a mixed history with processing asylum applications, particularly as it pertains to Turkey. Though the country made international headlines in January when a superior court defied the Turkish government's demands that Greece deport a group of eight Turkish military officers who defected from the armed services, Greece has also allegedly bungled the European Union's refugee plan. A Human Rights Watch report from March calls the country's efforts to process refugee applications—which involves holding asylum seekers in a series of "hot spots" to facilitate speedier processing times—an "unmitigated disaster."
"The [E.U.-Turkey refugee deal's] flawed assumption that Turkey is a safe country for asylum seekers would allow Greece to transfer [asylum seekers] back to Turkey without considering the merits of their asylum claims," the report concluded.
Compounding those political pressures, Papagiannakis says, is an astounding sense of apathy among the Greek public, which he describes as indifferent to the plight of Turks fleeing Erdogan's regime. "The fact that we have a long history of animosity between Greece and Turkey has to do with that also. So you're going to hear about the reaction, 'Yeah, who cares about the Turks?' Something like that," he says of public discourse. Discussion of the alleged refoulements, he says, isn't framed "in the context of the violation of human rights." Instead, it's about national identity. "It's in the context of who is who. I'm being here a bit provocative, but I think this has to do with the whole concept of human rights. I think [the human rights league is approaching this] a bit à la carte—we have to highlight the cases that would have gone unnoticed because of [these social] elements, not just because of the violation itself."
That means drawing attention to cases like Çapan's, which has become emblematic of Erdogan's crusade against the free press. Over 800 journalists have been charged with varying crimes and another nearly 200 are jailed in Turkey, which has the highest number of journalists in jail globally.