On Monday, 17 January, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan inaugurated the newly renovated Et’hem Bey Mosque on the edge of Skanderbeg Square in Tirana. The event was attended by Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, government ministers, and representatives of the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA). The Albanian Muslim Community (KMSH), however, were notably absent.
The restoration of the historic mosque was funded by TIKA. The KMSH, who own and administer it, were essentially excluded from the ceremony to celebrate the works completion.
Imam Bujar Spahiu, head of the KMSH, told the media they did not receive an official invitation from the event organisers or the Albanian government.
“There is nothing to allude to about our absence from the inauguration of the Et’hem Bey mosque. We just did not have an invitation,” he said.
It was alleged in the media that their absence was due to claims the KSHM is led by those sympathetic to Fethullah Gulen, an exiled cleric and Erdogan’s most vociferous opponent. Erdogan blames Gulen and his followers for the failed 2016 coup d’etat and has waged a significant crackdown on them since, purging them from public life.
This has even extended beyond Turkey’s borders, where several countries have signed secret agreements to engage in “extraterritorial abductions” and “enforced disappearances” of Turkish citizens back to Turkey without following the due legal process.
Spahiu, however, denies any links to the Gulen movement, which Erdogan calls ‘FETO’.
“We have nothing to do with FETO. We are Albanians,” he said.
Attempts to get further comments from the KSHM failed, as representatives and Spahiu were unwilling to elaborate.
Furthermore, it is reported that the KSHM held an emergency meeting with imams, muftis and leaders from around the country. The topic on the table was reportedly whether they should have an official, public statement on the comments made by Erdogan during his visit.
As of today, they have told the media, “we do not have an opinion at the moment.”
During Erdogan’s extraordinary speech to Albanian parliament on the same day, he said that the “FETO” organisation had infiltrated multiple parts of Albanian life. These include “education, healthcare, and religion.”
This is not the first time Albania has been asked to crack down on alleged Gulenists.
What is the Gulen Movement?
Otherwise known as Hizmet, Gulenists are the supporters of cleric Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan’s main rival. Gulen became prominent in Turkey in the 1960s as a religious preacher, proclaiming moderate and tolerant Islam. His followers say his teachings promote altruism, work, and education. Once an ally of Erdogan, the latter began to see him as a threat due to his network among successful business people and his influence over educational institutions.
Following the failed coup d’etat on 15 July 2016, where over 2,000 people were killed, Erdogan declared followers of Gulen as terrorists and arrested them in their thousands, imprisoning teachers, journalists, activists, and members of the civil service. Many more lost their jobs over alleged links to the organisation.
Only a handful of countries consider Gulenists to be a terrorist organisation, including Pakistan and occupied northern Cyprus which is under Ankara’s control.
What does Hizmet do?
Hizmet has funded countless schools, media, and NGOs and is operational in some 150 countries. This includes Albania which has five schools that are allegedly linked to the movement. One of the schools, allegedly linked to Gulen, is owned by a Dutch company and the administrators say they are not a part of the organisation.
The Maarif Foundation, also present in Albania, has started opening its own educational institutions in a bid to take Hizmet out of the game. They have a network of universities, kindergartens, and schools across the country. Maarif is directly funded by the Turkish government.
The Albanian government has already cracked down on several schools, allegedly run by Gulenists, including sending police to raid multiple campuses while children were present and without a warrant. One of the schools in question, Turgut Ozal, owned by a Dutch company, filed a criminal complaint against the State Police for raiding their premises during school hours and seizing school registers without a warrant.
In February last year, the court ordered the records be returned to the school.
Others report pressure to close, including continuous and unwarranted audits, legal and administrative harassment, and various other measures that they have interpreted as a way to force them to close and leave Albania.
During Erdogan’s speech, he said that Albania must remove Gulenists from Albania if it wants to maintain a friendly relationship with Turkey. By his next visit to Albania, Erdogan said the situation should be resolved “definitively”.
In 2018, former Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati said they would not hand over members of the Gulen movement to Turkey, but in practice, the opposite has happened.
In 2020, Turkish citizen Harun Celik was deported in a move described by the Albanian ombudsman as violating national law and international conventions. Celik entered Albania with a fake passport and tried to seek asylum. He was denied, was detained for five months, and then deported without having the opportunity to appeal the decision. Furthermore, he was deported without a deportation request from a court or prosecution order.
Under Albanian law, the government must notify the border police of a deportation 24 hours beforehand but failed to do so. Furthermore, Albanian law also states an individual has the right to leave the country by themselves, under a certain deadline.
The EU and various MEPs condemned the move and called on the government to ensure compliance with the Geneva Refugee Convention.
Selami Simsek, who entered the country with Celik, was also set to be deported in a similar manner. He was denied asylum by the Directorate of Asylum and Citizenship on 9 March 2020 and 10 September 2020. He requested the institutions be compelled to accept his request but lost in the first instance. The Administrative Court of Appeal then ruled against the government and prevented him from being deported.
The Court concluded that the Ministry of the Interior violated the law and bypassed UNRC recommendations in trying to expel him.
In July of 2020, United Nations rapporteurs found that the Turkish government has signed a series of “secret” agreements with states, including Albania, to enable “extraterritorial abductions and the forcible return of Turkish nationals”, according to a report by UN Rapporteurs.
The rapporteurs said that over 100 Turkish citizens had been forcibly transferred and that 40 of these had been subjected to “enforced disappearance”, at times with their family and children.
Dated May 2020, the report brings to attention the information they received, which appears to show a systematic practice of state-sponsored extraterritorial abductions. The individuals in question are suspected of being involved with the Gulen movement who Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as accused of being a terrorist organisation.
Albania, along with Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Gabon, Kosovo, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, and Pakistan, have been named as having come to a written agreement with the Turkish government on these matters.
Members of the Turkish government are accused of sending updated lists of supposed terrorists to their foreign counterparts, requesting their immediate deportation. These citizens then often find their passports annulled and their citizenship revoked.
The report states that the Turkish government have not only admitted to perpetrating or abetting abductions and illegal transfers but have vowed to carry out more in the future. It is reported that in November 2018, the Turkish Foreign Minister informed Parliament that 452 extradition requests had been sent to a total of 83 countries.
It also noted the July 2019 visit to Albania by the Turkish Interior Minister. During his visit, he reiterated a request that all Gulen affiliated schools in the country be closed and their staff deported. The Minister allegedly presented a document of all the names and passport numbers of Turkish nationals with Albanian residence which it wanted to be deported.
The report found that the Turkish authorities had established a special task force that is responsible for conducting and abetting the operations in other countries.
Subsequent comments from Director of Research at Freedom House Nate Schenkkan claimed that Turkey is the global leader in illegal repatriations, mainly from countries that are dependent on Ankara for financial, political, or humanitarian support.
He made the comments during an interview with the Financial Times for a piece lifting the lid on abductions by Turkish intelligence and deportations, which followed little to no due process. These incidents have taken place with alleged members of the Gulen movement, which Turkey alone considers a terrorist organisation.
The Turkish state has been accused of systematically pressuring countries to engage in extraterritorial abductions and forcible returns to Turkey.
According to Schenkkan, these reparations “will never end. Not as long as Erdogan is in power…this is such a high priority for them that they will sacrifice other foreign policy goals. The message is that Turkey makes its own rules…”
Some Turkish citizens living in Tirana for over 15 years, who spoke to Exit on the condition of anonymity, detailed how their passports have expired and they cannot renew them at the Turkish Embassy. Having applied for Albanian citizenship, after satisfying the requirements and even being married to Albanian citizens, they were repeatedly refused and told it was because of their alleged links to Hizmet. Some are now in a position where they risk being rendered stateless as they cannot renew their passport, and cannot get Albanian citizenship.
Meanwhile, an investigation by Nordic Monitor claimed that the Turkish Embassy in Albania was engaging in a campaign of intelligence gathering and profiling of critics of Erdogan, as well as alleged Gulenist. They cite information in documents used as evidence in an Ankara court against individuals accused of terrorism.
They reported that both the previous ambassador Hidayet Bayraktar and the current envoy Murat Ahmet Yoruk could have overseen the compilation of files on as many as 61 people, and then sent them to the foreign ministry in Turkey.
Meanwhile, following the demands of Erdogan in parliament earlier this week, Prime Minister Edi Rama responded by saying “we have no debt” to Turkey and Erdogan.
“We owe no debt to the president of Turkey and Turkey, just as the president of Turkey and the Republic of Turkey owe us nothing because there is no debt between friends and a brotherly friendship.”