A Turkish aid worker has been detained in the United Arab Emirates for over two years while being tortured for information and allegations of connections to the Syrian opposition, the London-based news outlet Middle East Eye has found.
Mehmet Ali Ozturk, a Turkish businessman and aid worker who often conducted humanitarian trips to the opposition-held areas in northern Syria, was kidnapped along with his wife Emine Ozturk by the Emirati State Security Agency on 20 February 2018.
After their arrest, which took place while they were staying in Dubai for the annual book fair, Emine was deported to Turkey while her husband remained in detention for unknown reasons at the time.
In a phone call between Emine and Mehmet from prison, which was recorded and obtained by Middle East Eye, the aid worker told her that he was kept in solitary confinement for a month, tortured and interrogated about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He was also questioned on other topics such as Qatar’s ties with Turkey and the US in previously supporting the Syrian opposition forces.
“They asked me how Qatar was transferring funds to Turkey and to the fighters. They would ask me about Erdogan and his family’s role in it,” Ozturk said. He insisted that “I don’t know anything about these issues. If I said no, they would hit my head. They would beat me. They kept me in an extremely cold room with a weight put on my back, forcing me to lean, but kneeling wasn’t permitted. For days I was forced to stand.” To add to this, his foot was injured and left to heal untreated for weeks.
His interrogators were also curious and confused about other topics, such as why Erdogan wasn’t cooperating with Israel and how Turkey delivers weapons to Syrian opposition fighters.
In December 2018, Ozturk was sentenced to life imprisonment by a local court in the UAE, on charges that he provided material support to some opposition groups, and that decision was upheld by the country’s Supreme Court last year. The Emirates’ evidence for this was reportedly based on pictures of him posing with senior figures of some of the groups – both those seen as radical and moderate – while overlooking the fact that he needed permission from these groups to deliver aid through their territory.
According to Middle East Eye, Turkish officials have said that the charges the UAE has imposed on Ozturk are baseless. One official familiar with the case said: “How could you sentence someone for life without concrete evidence? This is a political case.”
Ozturk’s lawyer Mete Gencer also debunked the UAE’s accusations, saying: “The claims are absolutely nonsensical. He was just an aid worker who was motivated by helping innocent people.” Gencer added: “It is obvious that you cannot work in these areas without at least a permission from these groups. The Emirates accuses him of simultaneously backing the Free Syrian Army, Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham groups. How does that make sense? These groups often fight each other.”
The ongoing case and detention of Ozturk, which many have labelled a serious violation of human rights, comes amid strained relations between the UAE and Turkey throughout the past few years, as well as the Emirates’ close relations with the Syrian regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. These relations have developed up to such an extent that the Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed was recently discovered to have been persuading Al-Assad to relaunch an offensive into Syria’s opposition-held north-west province of Idlib in order to tie down the Turkish army and divert it from Libya.
Following the hearing and charge at the end of 2018, Ozturk was removed from his months of torture and solitary confinement to the Al-Wathba prison. His family only learnt of his transfer and location when a Syrian woman whose son is at the same prison called Emine and informed her. Since then, the couple have reportedly been able to talk freely, enabling him to tell her about the torture he underwent. “He lost 25kg after the torture they subjected him to,” Emine said, which included the pulling out of fingernails and the hanging of the body by the wrists tied to a rope. “They would do these things when he refused to take part in a video accusing Erdogan of some crimes,” his wife stated.
Yasin Aktay, one of Erdogan’s advisers on the Middle East, called the UAE “a mafia state. And we are in a fight. The things we can do are limited. But we are doing our best.” He added that the Gulf state had been attempting to use hostage diplomacy against Turkey for years, saying: “They would like us to deport some members of the Muslim Brotherhood from the country, or the UAE dissidents living in Istanbul. This won’t happen.”