Serhat Turan fled to Finland in December 2015, while his compatriot Demir Alpay sought refuge in August 2016. Both men are Turkish Kurds and have both been imprisoned for in Turkey for their political activities. They both also claim that they have been abused and tortured while in detention.
The men are awaiting deportation to Turkey, where they may face prison sentences. In spite of the possible repercussions they have come forward to tell their stories with a view to shedding light on the plight of Turkish Kurds and others who oppose the government.
"We have been through so much adversity that compared to that, this feels like nothing," Serhat Turan said.
Migri: Men had not been profiled
Like many Turkish Kurds, Alpay and Turan support the PKK but deny membership in the organisation. Political persecution is one basis for receiving international protection in the form of asylum. According to the Finnish Aliens Act, persecution includes excessive or discriminatory prosecution or punishment.
Finnish immigration officials accepted as fact that Alpay and Turan had been imprisoned under charges of "membership in a terrorist organisation" and "disseminating terrorist propaganda". However officials did not view their treatment "as such that it could be viewed as persecution in accordance with the Aliens Act."
According to the Finnish Immigration Service Migri, Turan and Alpay had not been profiled by the Turkish government as people who would face serious defamation if they were to return. Migri noted that the men had eventually been freed from pre-trial detention. Additionally in Turan’s case, they pointed out that he had even been allowed to leave Turkey with his own passport. However Turan had applied for a passport in June 2015, while the warrant for his arrest had been given in July.
"Certainly one can draw the conclusion that there is no evidence. A state with stricter policies would not let someone like that [a terrorism suspect] free. It demonstrates that his operational profile is not the kinds that officials would be interested in first if he were to return," said Esko Repo, head of Migri’s asylum seeker unit.
Official not familiar with Turkish law
However Repo admitted that he was not fully up to speed with Turkish legislation.
"I don’t know if you can be criminalised merely for belonging to the PKK or something similar," Repo added.
According to Turkish law, membership in organisations such as the PKK can mean a prison sentence ranging from five to 10 years. Although they were released from custody, both asylum seekers still face charges and could be imprisoned for years if they return.
However Repo argued that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the charges will land the men in jail.
"There are millions of Kurds in Turkey. What is the practice? Even if there is that kind of criminalisation, they don’t have the means to intervene in all activities, only the high-profile ones," he commented.
Migri bases its decisions on country-specific information, acquired from asylum seekers’ countries of origin at the time they applied for asylum -- 2015 in both cases. However, referring to a UK Interior Ministry report from 2013, the asylum decision also notes that Kurds in "leading or important positions" or members of leftist parties may also become the subject of persecution in Turkey.
Researchers: Migri decision based on dated info
Yle asked two experts to comment on Migri’s decision to deny asylum to the two Kurdish men and deport them to Turkey. The dated country information used by the immigration officials was a cause for concern.
"In my view the charge that only high-profile Kurds are harassed is not at all accurate at this time. Anyone belonging to the HDP [the Peoples’ Democratic Party], or reporting on political activity in southeast Turkey can come under attack," said Toni Alaranta, a senior researcher with the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, FIIA.
"That does not reflect the current situation at all. The 2015 election in particular, the same year that the truce broke down and since last year’s attempted coup, have all changed the situation significantly. Frankly speaking, I can’t see Migri’s decision as credible, if they are really using information from a report sent four years ago," said Johanna Vuorelma, a Helsinki University researcher who specialises in Turkey.
Vuorelma added that being released offers no guarantee than an individual no longer requires international protection. She said that this is a common practice in Turkey, even if an individual has been charged with membership in a terrorist organisation. She noted that the same had been done in April in the case of an MP from the opposition HDP party.
Holding the "wrong" political views
Turan spent 2011 in prison after being charged with membership in the anti-government Kurdish Workers’ Party, the PKK. Both Turkey and the EU have classified the PKK as a terrorist organisation. Officials did not present any evidence that Turan engaged in any armed activity. According to documents acquired from Turkey, a decision by the Finnish Immigration Service and the man’s own account, Turan’s alleged crimes could be better described as expressing the wrong political opinions.
Prosecutors called for a prison sentence of more than six years but Turan was released after a year in prison, when the Turkish government launched peace talks with the PKK. Turan continued his activism following his release. In 2014, he was accused of disseminating "terrorist propaganda" and in 2015 he was once more called in for questioning. This time around, he didn’t wait to be detained, but took a flight to Finland.
Fateful motorcycle trip
On 11 November, 2015, Demir Alpay was riding his motorcycle when two unknown men stopped him and asked for a ride. Alpay agreed and one of the men took over as driver. A Turkish anti-terrorism unit stopped the bikers but the strange man accelerated, forcing the vehicle off the road. Alpay was taken in for questioning and was later accused of being a PKK member.
During his interrogation, Alpay admitted to participating in anti-government demonstrations and hurling stones at police. When charges were laid against him, prosecutors used as evidence his old Facebook Kurdish nationalist posts and notes that were taken from the pocket of the other man on the bike. Alpay was in pre-trial detention for three months. He said that his passport was cancelled and he was slapped with a travel ban. However he left Turkey and with the help of smugglers, slipped into Europe.