Belgium and Turkey have a somewhat tense and delicate relationship that has lately been complicated by a dispute over counter-terrorism efforts. Ankara believes that activities by Turkish terrorist groups abroad constitute a Turkish matter. Brussels, on the other hand, attempts to resist Turkish pressure on these issues while evaluating terrorist activities in their Belgian and European context. Moreover, Brussels questions Ankara’s respect for human rights, leading to difficulties in counter-terrorist cooperation and extradition efforts. Nevertheless, both countries are tightly interrelated and are therefore compelled to maintain good relations, at least in appearance.
On March 21, during the celebration of the Kurdish New Year in the streets of Liege, Belgian police arrested Mehmet Sahin, a 33-year old member of the Kurdish terrorist organization the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The arrest occurred one month after the controversial acquittal by a Belgian court of seven members of the radical Turkish Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front/Party (DHKP/C) (AFP, February 9). The arrest of Sahin has the appearance of a make-up gift designed to placate Turkish indignation over the acquittal of figures wanted on terrorism charges in Turkey.
Mehmet Sahin is accused of having participated in various terrorist attacks in the southeastern Turkish province of Diyarbakir between 1992 and 1997. One of those attacks against a police station killed 23 people (Today’s Zaman, March 24). Sahin illegally entered Belgium in 2000 and appealed for asylum. He was the subject of seven arrest warrants in Turkey and was named in an Interpol “Red Notice,” which requests the arrest and extradition of wanted individuals. At the moment Sahin is in the Lantin Prison in Liege, waiting to be extradited. Belgium, however, demands guarantees that he will not be sentenced to death, according to Belgium’s national policy on capital punishment (De Morgen, March 23).
Mehmet Sahin was living in the Liege area, where most of Belgium’s Kurdish population is concentrated. Members of the PKK are present mainly in Germany, but also in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Through propaganda efforts they try to gather active and passive support for their cause. Kurds are also alleged to have financed militant activities through criminal operations in Europe. Various reports have emphasized that those operations are ongoing (Spiegel Online, October 30, 2007; Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, April 5, 2005). In Brussels Kurdish groups also attempt to pressure European diplomats.
It is not the first time that Belgian authorities have taken action against the PKK. In 1996, for instance, Belgian police conducted Operation Sputnik in collaboration with Scotland Yard. The operation discovered some $11 million in an account held by Med TV Broadcasting Company, accused of having ties to the PKK. Security officials tied these funds to operations related to drugs, weapons and human trafficking. The raids resulted in the closure of Med TV in 1999. In 2002, Belgian and French investigators launched Operation Sputnik II, breaking up an extensive PKK money-laundering operation .
In late February, the Belgian Ministry of Finance imposed a tax fine of more than $6 million on Roj TV, the successor of Med TV, which could cause the closing of the PKK-affiliated broadcaster (Today’s Zaman, February 20).
On February 7, Antwerp’s Court of Appeal acquitted seven members of the DHKP/C, a Turkish Marxist-Leninist terror group that wishes to take power through violence. The seven individuals were accused of directing terrorist operations from their headquarters in Knokke-Heist, a quiet town on the Belgian coast. In raids conducted during 1999, police found weapons, ammunitions, false documents and propaganda material in a small apartment (La Libre Belgique, February 8). Although they had been convicted in two previous trials, the judge of Antwerp’s Court decided that the suspects were not directly related to any terror plot. Hence, four individuals—Sukriye Akar Ozordulu, Dursun Karatas, Zerrin Sari and Bahar Kimyongur—were completely discharged. Three others—Musa Asoglu, Fehriye Erdal, and Kaya Saz—were condemned to prison sentences ranging from 21 months to three years for illegal possession of weapons and production of false documents. In other words, the judge envisioned the Knokke cell as a mere propaganda arm of the DHKP/C in Belgium, and not as a terrorist cell. The public prosecutor, however, announced that it will bring the case to the Cassation (appeals) Court (Belga, February 21).
In Turkey, newspapers expressed exasperation after the acquittal of the seven members of the DHKP/C. Milliyet styled it “The Comedy of Judges,” while Vatan wondered: “Is this the justice of European Belgium?” (February 8). The Islamist newspaper Yeni Safak observed: “Instead of catching them, they release them” (February 8). In general, the Turkish people do not understand why members of a group that has killed more than 300 of their fellows and which is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union are said to be innocent. Dursun Karatas, who was totally discharged, is the secretary general of the DHKP/C.
The reaction from the political world was even more vehement. “Such decisions give encouragement to terror groups,” said Cemil Cicek, Turkish deputy prime minister and government spokesman. “It shows some countries are not fulfilling their responsibilities in the fight against terrorism,” he continued (Journal of Turkish Weekly, February 13). The president of the National Assembly, Koksal Toptan, declared: “It is scary that Belgian authorities do not qualify as terrorist the DHKP/C, an organization that the entire world defines as such… Nobody in the future will feel the need to cooperate in the fight against terrorism… Terrorism has taken a global turn. If all the countries refuse to do their part in this common fight, terrorism will never be defeated” (Le Soir, February 9).
The members of the Knokke cell—Fehriye Erdal, Musa Asoglu and Bahar Kimyongur—were sentenced to prison for the first time in Bruges in February 2006. Their sentence was confirmed in Gent in November 2006. However, the trial was marked by the theatrical escape of Fehriye Erdal, a young Turkish woman living in Belgium. Fehryie Erdal participated in the assassination of the head of the Sabanci Holding company, Ozdemir Sabanci, his secretary and the director of the Turkish Toyota company on January 9, 1996. Although she did not kill the three individuals, Erdal allowed the two killers entry into the building with her employee’s pass. Since the 1990s, Ankara has asked several times for her extradition. Belgium refused as it feared Erdal would be sentenced to death. In 2002, Turkey abandoned the death sentence, but Belgium maintained its refusal, which was a hard pill to swallow for Ankara. Erdal decided to flee from Belgium the day before the announcement of the sentence, disappearing despite the tight surveillance of the Surete de l’Etat, Belgium’s domestic intelligence agency, which had no legal power to stop her. The incident created much political tension within Belgium as well as irritating relations between Brussels and Ankara. Erdal is still on the run.
As it turned out, Erdal received only a two year suspended sentence in the last trial in Antwerp (AFP, February 7). A Belgian commission headed to Istanbul in February in order to meet with the judges and investigators in charge of the Erdal case, indicating the opening of a new investigation in Belgium on the triple murder. The Turkish justice minister estimates, however, that the commission arrived “too late” (Belga, February 16).
After Erdal’s disappearance, Belgium came under considerable political pressure from Turkey. Therefore, the government decided to give Turkey Bahar Kimyongur, a Belgian national charged by Turkey with membership in the DHKP/C. As a policy, Belgium does not normally extradite its nationals, but when Kimyongur crossed the border to assist in a music concert in the Netherlands, an arrest was made by Dutch security officials, which was believed to have been engineered by the Belgian security services. At a secret meeting on March 26, 2006, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhoftadt, Interior Minister Patrick Dewael and Justice Minister Laurette Onkelinx, along with representatives of the federal police and the Surete de l’Etat, organized the extradition of Bahar Kimyongur to Turkey. The secret committee agreed to provide classified information on Kimyongur to the Dutch police that led to his arrest (Radio et de la television belges francophones, September 19, 2006). Nevertheless, the Dutch police released him due to a lack of evidence. The story made headlines, with many denouncing the strategy as “worthy of the worse dictatorships” and as a sign of weakness in the face of Turkish pressure (Le Soir, February 7). Bahar Kimyongur has now been totally discharged by Antwerp’s Court.
The relationship between Brussels and Ankara is extremely complex. Cooperation on counter-terrorism constitutes a major aspect of that relationship, as well as representing a source of conflict. Turkey has a more aggressive counter-terrorism policy than Belgium, resulting in the creation of tension between the two countries. However, the two nations maintain strong ties originating in their economic relations and the presence of a substantial Turkish diaspora in Belgium. Turkey is also trying to enter the European Union and will require Belgian cooperation to achieve this. The formation of a new government in Belgium, chaired by Yves Leterme, who is hostile to Turkish accession to the EU, has the potential to complicate Turkey’s efforts, but both Brussels and Ankara have strong incentives to repair their deteriorating relationship.
1. Mitchel P. Roth and Murat Sever, “The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) as Criminal Syndicate: Funding Terrorism through Organized Crime, A Case Study,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism Vol. 30, October 1, 2007, pp. 901-920.