The holding of two Greek soldiers in Turkey for mistakenly crossing the countries’ ill-marked land border has raised fears the pair could face a lengthy period of imprisonment without trial.
Lawyers for Lieutenant Aggelos Mitretodis and Sergeant Dimitrios Kouklatzis who are being held at a prison in the town of Edirne (Andrianoupolis in Greek), saw their clients’ bail request turned down on Monday, threatening to draw out what Athens hoped would be a quickly-resolved error.
The unexpected rejection has also fueled concerns about how long the Greek soldiers will be embroiled in Turkey’s legal system.
Since Turkey’s leadership was riven by an internal war between Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s supporters and the vast religious network known popularly as the Gulen movement in 2013, thousands of people have been detained.
The number of arrests increased sharply after the July 2016 coup attempt which also led to the introduction of a state of emergency in Turkey.
This was extended for a sixth time in January — leading to the suspension of many legal and democratic checks contained in the country’s constitution.
Turkey’s state of emergency also gives sweeping powers to rule by decree, effectively wielded by its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
‘Extreme political pressure’
Amnesty International in its 2017/2018 report for Turkey, says 50,000 people were in pre-trial detention over purported links to the Gulen network, with almost as many on bail.
Turkey’s judiciary too has been radically changed, with Amnesty claiming up to a third of the country’s judges and prosecutors have been fired or jailed and the rest facing “extreme political pressure”.
“Arbitrary, lengthy and punitive pre-trial detention and fair trial violations continued routinely,” it adds.
Fears that detainees with foreign citizenship are being used as bargaining chips between Turkey’s government and overseas states have arisen before.
The recent freeing of German-Turkish journalist Deniz Tuncel — held for a year in solitary confinement on ‘terror propaganda’ charges — following talks between Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish premier Binali Yildirim, seemed to undermine claims by Turkey’s leadership that its judiciary was independent.
Late in September last year, Erdogan appeared to suggest Ankara would free an American evangelical pastor and longtime Turkey resident called Andrew Brunson who has been in custody since October 2016.
Brunson faces a range of terrorism and espionage charges. In February 2017, 78 members of the U.S. Congress signed a letter addressed to Erdogan saying there was no evidence to back up the allegations against Brunson.
However, in a speech to police in Ankara last September, Erdogan explicitly linked the Brunson case to that of Fetullah Gulen, the U.S.-based purported ringleader of both the clandestine religious network in Turkey and the 2016 coup attempt.
He was quoted by Reuters as saying: “‘Give us the pastor back’, they say. You have one pastor as well. Give him [Gulen] to us… Then we will try him [Brunson) and give him to you.
“The [pastor] we have is on trial. Yours is not — he is living in Pennsylvania. You can give him easily. You can give him right away.”
Turkey’s leadership has also been infuriated by the refusal of several European countries to extradite Turkish suspects for trial.
Among these is Greece, where the country’s highest court has refused to extradite both former Turkish servicemen wanted in connection with the coup attempt and leftist terror suspects, saying they will not receive a fair trial in Turkey.
Ankara says it is fighting an international conspiracy to overthrow its democratically elected government, but the numbers of people still being held has unnerved a Greek public concerned with the fate of its two soldiers in what could prove to be a drawn-out affair.