German raids target Turkish clerics in spy inquiry

By Stefan Wagstyl for Financial Times

screenshot-www.ft.com 2017-02-17 23-46-53
© AFP

German prosecutors have searched the homes of four Turkish Muslim preachers in a widening probe into claims that Ankara’s crackdown on its political opponents extends to spying on people of Turkish origin living abroad.

The four are alleged to have snooped on followers of Fethullah Gulen, the US-based cleric accused by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan of organising last year’s failed military coup, and passed information to the Turkish consulate in Cologne, said prosecutors.

Tensions have risen over Berlin’s resistance to Turkish efforts to extend its investigation into alleged opponents of Mr Erdogan, which has led to tens of thousands of arrests in Turkey.

As well as threatening bilateral ties, Mr Erdogan’s crackdown has deepened divisions in Germany’s Turkish community between supporters and critics of the president.

These splits could be highlighted on Saturday when Binali Yildirim, Turkish prime minister, speaks in Cologne in support of a referendum vote to reinforce Mr Erdogan’s presidential powers. While German authorities have allowed the visit, a spokesman for Angela Merkel’s government said: “We don’t want [Turkey’s] domestic conflicts to be transferred to us in Germany.”

The raids, in the regions of North Rhine-Westphalia and the Rhineland Palatinate, come after the federal prosecutor launched a probe last month following growing complaints of harassment in Turkish mosques.

Germany is home to about 3m Turks and people of Turkish origin, including some 1.5m Turkish citizens. The authorities are particularly concerned about Ditib, an umbrella organisation for Turkish mosques, which number about 900 or about a third of all Germany’s Muslim prayer halls. Ditib is supported by the Turkish government’s religious affairs directorate (Diyanet), which trains and pays the preachers.

The German government confirmed last month that Diyanet had in the wake of the failed putsch asked Turkish embassies and religious bodies abroad to compile information about Mr Gulen’s followers. At the time Bekir Alboga, Ditib’s general secretary, explained that “a few” imams followed this advice but it had been “a mistake” that Ditib regretted.

Officials in North Rhine-Westphalia, which has Germany’s largest Turkish population, said last week that 13 imams in the region had sent information to Ankara on 33 individuals and 11 organisations, including Muslim schools. Another three preachers in neighbouring Rhineland Palatinate supplied information, they said.

Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the BfV domestic intelligence agency, said last month that Berlin had protested about the alleged espionage. “We cannot accept that intelligence agencies are operating in Germany against German interests,” he said.

The question is complicated by the fact that the German intelligence services co-operate with their Turkish counterpart, the MIT, in counter-terrorist activities, notably against Isis activists coming into the EU. But Ankara complains that Berlin is slow to work together against other targets, such as the militant Kurdistan Workers’ party, which is considered a terrorist group in the EU and in Turkey.

Yet concerns remain in Berlin about Ditib, which as well as supervising mosques plays a big role in helping the German authorities to organise Muslim education in public schools in many regions. Heiko Maas, Germany’s justice minister, on Wednesday urged Ditib to loosen its ties with Ankara, saying “the influence of the Turkish state on Ditib is too great”.

Diyanet rejects the accusations of spying, telling journalists last month that such claims were “deeply upsetting” and the Ditib was in any case a separate body.