Saturday, January 9, 2010

Alleged Intimidation of Iranian Refugees a Potential Problem for Turkey

Some Iranian political dissidents seeking asylum after Iran's contested presidential elections in July continue to assert that they are not receiving adequate police protection inside Turkey. While much has been made of Turkey's ever closer relationship with the largly de-legitimized Iranian regime, it is claims like these, especially when combined with continued political repression and dissent in Iran, that risk a public relations nightmare for Turkey along the lines of that the country faced this past November when it refused to disallow Sudanese president and genocidaire Omar al-Bashir from attending the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) meeting. The Guardian's Robert Tait writes
Some Iranians have expressed doubts about the protection given to them by police in Turkey. Two men in a small town in central Turkey said police threatened to hand them over to the Iranian authorities. Others say Turkish police have warned them to keep quiet about the threats they have received from Iranian agents.

The intimidation campaign comes after a senior revolutionary guard commander, Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri, told the hardline Keyhan newspaper that foreign-based supporters of the opposition green movement would be targeted as "extensions of a soft coup".

"So far, a large number of the infantry of the enemy has been identified," he said. "The Islamic Republic will not allow the extensions of a soft coup to act on further sedition and if necessary, the government will make them face serious challenges."

Iranians do not need visa requirement to enter Turkey, meaning it would be easy in theory for Iran's state agents to operate clandestinely within Turkey's borders. Western diplomats have privately voiced concerns about the security of Iranian refugees from the election upheaval.

However, Metin Corabatir, external affairs officer with the UN's high commission for refugees, insisted they were safe in Turkey. "The Iranians are under the protection of the Turkish state and Turkey is a secure country," he said. "If there are some high profile people, extra measures are taken to ensure they are protected. But we know of no incident and there is no threat to these people."
While the UNHCR has maintained the asylum seekers are safe in Turkey, the United States has intervened in at least one case involving the alleged assault of a woman who has been particularly vocal in her complaints about continued intimidation by Iranian authorities, pressing the UNHCR to speed up the woman's application for asylum so she can seek refuge in another country.

Turkey was among the first, if not the first, country to congratulate Iranian President Ahmadinejad on his disputed election victory this past July. While it could well be argued that Turkey did not want to make an enemy of the Iranian regime by criticizing the election, the Turkish government broke its diplomatic silence after the phone call when Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu described the election as "dynamic and well-attended," calling on dissidents to succumb to the result while refraining to comment on the human rights violations that caused other governments to raise concern. In October, Prime Minister Erdogan again decided not to comment on continued human rights violations in Iran, critcizing NATO policy toward Iran's nuclear pursuits as failing to take into account Iran's need to develop critical infastructure while calling the country a "friend" with which it has had no difficulties.

While these strategic choices might be well-grounded, continued dissent in Iran, such as that which occurred during Ashura festivities on Dec. 27, does not bode well for Turkey, nor does any harrassment of Iranian political exiles seeking refuge within its borders.

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