How Safe Tourists Are In Turkey?

A rally by supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Austria. Photo Credit: Reuters

Criticizing Turkey’s president is a great deal of risk for many Turkish citizens as they may end up in jail. Thousands were imprisoned just for tweets critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

And Turkey’s creeping intolerance for even a small hint of criticism for its leader now extends to target non-Turks. 5 Austrians, all believed to be critics of President Erdogan, were deported from Turkey after brief detentions.

Turkey denies that tourists visiting Turkey are not safe, even calling it “bullshit.”

It is not just their detention, but also what sent them into custody constitutes the most bewildering part of the dispute between Turkey and Austria. According to an Austrian lawmaker, Turkey’s spies profiled Austrian citizens back in Austria, identified them after they made critical comments about Mr. Erdogan.

The claim was brought up by Austrian lawmaker Peter Pilz from Greens, arguing that 5 Austrian citizens who previously spoke out against Mr. Erdogan were first detained and then deported from Turkey.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry rebuffs charges of the Austrian politician who champions a campaign against Mr. Erdogan’s wide network of spies across Europe.

“If you have made critical statements about Erdogan in Austria, I recommend that you don’t go to Turkey,” Reuters quoted Mr. Pilz as saying at a news conference.

He documented cases of 5 Austrians who went through an ordeal in Turkey. Turkish officials told an Austrian in Turkey that there had been complaints about him from Austria over his anti-Erdogan remarks. In another incident, authorities held another Austrian at a Turkish airport for having a text message critical of Mr. Erdogan on his phone. 

Reports of tourists and foreign nationals who were barred from entering the country when they landed at airports points to a wider practice put in place by the Turkish authorities.

Barbara Spinelli, an Italian lawyer, human rights activist and international observer for European Association of Lawyers for Democracy (ELDH), was held at Istanbul Ataturk airport for 16 hours and was blocked from entering the country.

In remarks to The Globe Post, she said there are nearly 50 Italian journalists that have been barred from entering Turkey over the past 2 years. Ms. Spinelli offered a bleak picture of the declining number of Italian tourists traveling to Turkey.

“What I see is that European tourism has drastically decreased. Flights from Italy to Istanbul has dropped almost 50 percent,” she stated.

“A lot of Italians are still living and working there, but they are quite scared about the situation.”
Ece Heper, a Canadian citizen, was held in prison over allegations of insulting President Erdogan. Ms. Heper who lives in Ontario was detained by Turkish authorities in early January over a critical post on Facebook. The Canadian Consulate is trying to provide legal assistance to Ms. Heper whose access to medical treatment in prison is severely restricted, her friends told BBC.
Another Canadian, Davut Hanci, is being held in a solitary confinement for 7 months. A Turkish court postponed his hearing twice due to lack of evidence. He was visiting Turkey for 2 weeks last summer when he was arrested.
Speaking at a press conference in Berlin on Thursday, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu bluntly dismissed allegations on the arrest of tourists. “Come on, you must be joking. Tourists are coming to Turkey and are put in the prison. This is the black propaganda of the press, including yourself, actually,” the minister rebuffed a journalist.

“So we are receiving 40 millions tourists, and nobody is put into prison if anybody doesn’t violate the law in any country. This is, I have to say bullshit,” he exploded in indignation, accusing the journalist of conducting black propaganda against Turkey. 

“Everybody is enjoying the holiday in Turkey. Don’t make black propaganda my friend. Stop anti-Turk sentiments and hatred.”

Germany and the Netherlands accused Turkey of ramping up espionage activities in those countries. But what Austrian story reveals is the fact that it is not just opponents of Mr. Erdogan, or members of Fethullah Gulen movement, arch-foe of the Turkish president, but also Europeans now bear the brunt of President’s wrath and become targets of ever-widening spying activities. The story reveals the scope of Ankara’s expanding reach at the heart of Europe.

The espionage issue drove a wedge between Turkey and Germany, two NATO allies, and risks to jeopardize their shaky cooperation over migration and joint fight against Islamic State in Syria.

Bewildering turn of events over the past two weeks have plunged relations to a new low after Turkey’s imprisonment of a journalist, with dual Turkish-German citizenships, working for German Die Welt. It was precipitated a week before by German police’s raid on apartments of 4 Turkish imams over charges of espionage on behalf of the Turkish government.

Ankara drove up tensions after arresting journalist Deniz Yucel. But it was Germany’s cancellation of campaign rallies by Turkish ministers in 2 German cities that brought Turkey’s browbeating of Berlin to a fever pitch this week.

President Erdogan’s Nazi charges against Germany have injected a high note of drama to the ensuing row. German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged the Turkish leaders to stop Nazi comparisons in an effort not to trivialize the victims of the Nazi era.

Mrs. Merkel described Nazi remarks as sad and incredibly misplaced. “We will not allow the victims of the Nazis to be trivialized. These comparisons with the Nazis must stop,” the German chancellor said.

Mr. Cavusoglu met with his German counterpart in Berlin to seek ways to tamp down the smoldering tension. German leaders are growing increasingly wary of spillover of Turkish domestic conflicts into Germany.

German domestic intelligence agency BfV said in a statement that it sees “significant increase in intelligence efforts by Turkey in Germany.”

What bothers German authorities most is the likelihood of a potential strife between nationalist Turks and supporters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Germany.

“There is the danger that these proxy fights between PKK supporters and nationalist, right-wing extremist Turks will escalate because there is a high, hard hitting potential for danger in both groups,” Reuters quoted BfV President Hans-Georg Massen as saying.

Turkish people will decide the fate of their country and its political system in an upcoming referendum on April 16. Seeing his political future at stake, Mr. Erdogan seeks to reach 1.4 million eligible Turkish voters in Germany.

His spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said European countries are working for rejection of constitutional reforms at the referendum. His line of thinking is widely shared among the Turkish government, which sees a Western plot to topple Mr. Erdogan whom his supporters consider to be “the leader of the Muslim world.”

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