Many of the commanding officers of troops that Turkey maintains in divided Cyprus were removed on flimsy evidence as part of a major overhaul of the Turkish military by the government of Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
According to a trove of secret military documents obtained by Nordic Monitor, highly dubious evidence was presented as a pretext for removing senior officers in the 39th Mechanized Infantry Division, fueling suspicions that the Turkish government is bent on escalating tensions with the Greek Cypriots, with military ranks filled by neo-nationalists and Islamists.
The charges filed against the officers, ranging from coup plotting to terrorism, are believed to simply have been a pretext for shaping the command structure of what the Turkish government calls the Cyprus Turkish Peace Force Command (Kıbrıs Türk Barış Kuvvetleri Komutanlığı). Greek Cypriots label the troops as occupying forces, present on the island since 1974, when Turkey sent troops following a Greek Cypriot coup d’état intended to force union with Greece.
The activities of Turkish troops in Cyprus have recently created tension between Turkey and Cyprus, and the UN peacekeeping force was called upon to help resolve the situation. It is not clear whether the Turkish army activities had anything to do with the massive purge that took place in the Turkish Armed Forces, which have lost some 70 percent of its generals and admirals since 2016.
Nurullah Özdemir, a 47-year-old senior colonel with the 39th Mechanized Infantry Division, located in Çamlıbel (Morphou), was abruptly suspended on August 11, 2016 and later removed on the claim that his name was mentioned in one of the statements given by defendants in a 2016 failed coup investigation. Although he had played no role in a very limited mobilization in the July 15, 2016 events and was stationed on the island at the time, he was profiled as one of the many who would be purged from the military.
Col. Özdemir was detained in Izmir province when he returned to Turkey on August 28, 2016 following his suspension. which relieved him of his firearm as well as his salary. Süleyman Kotaman, another senior colonel, was also removed from his position in a similar and controversial procedure initiated by the Land Forces Command, which acted on unsubstantiated claims passed on by Turkish intelligence and the police force.
Col. Bülent Demirdöver, Staff Col. Bilal Bayram, Capt. Dursun Kalebaşı, Lt. Col. Yener Demir and Staff Lt. Col. Uğur Sarı all shared the same fate and faced investigation and prosecution on what appears to be totally circumstantial evidence.
The documents also named Staff Capt. İlker Can, Capt. Erhan Mesut Akyıldız, 1st Lts. Kadir Gültekin and Bilal Yılmaz; Lts. Zafer Çalış, Melike Calış and Rıdvan Akyol; and Sgts. Ömer Yaman, Tunçkan Efe, Sabri Yalçın, İrfan Doğan, Muammer Avcı and Durmuş Çırak as among those targeted by the witch-hunt probes.
The evidence presented by Turkish authorities to support serious charges of terrorism and coup plotting against the officers included bank accounts maintained by their relatives in Turkey. The accounts were held at Bank Asya, which was established in 1996 upon formal approval of regulators and had 210 branches, 5,000 employees and around 1.5 million clients. It operated under the supervision of independent regulatory bodies in Turkey that were responsible for overseeing the banking sector. It was a popular financial institution and one of the country’s best capitalized banks.
The government took over the bank on February 4, 2015, when Erdoğan launched a major crackdown on the Gülen movement in the aftermath of major corruption investigations that incriminated Erdoğan, his family members and his business and political associates. It was a retaliatory operation to punish investors and shareholders of the bank who decided to not support the Erdoğan government in the face of massive corruption in the government.
According to the profiling data of the officers, only Sgt. Doğan had an account with Bank Asya. In the case of six officers, a relative had an account with the bank, which was enough to punish the officers on account of actions taken by their immediate or distant relatives.
The mere fact that Col. Özdemir’s in-laws (father-in-law, mother-in-law and sister-in-law) had all accounts with Bank Asya was sufficient to remove and dismiss him from the military. Similarly, Lt. Col. Adem Topaktas was flagged because his sister-in-law had an account at the same bank.
Another charge that lacks real proof of any criminal behavior is that a few officers or their relatives had allegedly downloaded and/or used the ByLock mobile phone messaging application. The Turkish government has effectively criminalized the use of many encrypted messaging applications, although there is no such provision in the penal code. Indictments filed against critics in Turkey include not only ByLock but other encrypted apps such as Viber, Telegram, WhatsApp, Messenger, Tango and Coco as if their use amounts to criminal behavior.
Turkish courts routinely convict people for simply downloading or using the ByLock application although no criminal content has been found in the substance of the messages. This policy of the Turkish government has been criticized by inter-governmental organizations and as well as nongovernmental human rights groups. The UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UN/WGAD) stated that detention, arrest and conviction in Turkey based on the alleged use of ByLock are violations of Articles 19, 21 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
More officers who were deployed to Cyprus but not listed in the classified documents that Nordic Monitor obtained faced prosecution, dismissal and arrest. For example, Maj. Gen. Sadık Piyade, commander of the 39th Mechanized Infantry Division, was also detained as a suspect in the 2016 coup and interrogated by the authorities. Turkish prosecutor had to drop the investigation when nothing was found against him, but he was forced to retire.
In addition to the 39th Mechanized Infantry Division, the Turkish army maintains more troops on the island such as the 28th Mechanized Infantry Division, the 14th Armored Brigade and various commandos, artillery regiments and battalions.
The secret documents drafted by the Turkish military with respect to forces in Cyprus are posted below: (It may take a while to load due to the size of the documents.)