I was smeared, persecuted and deported in Erdogan’s Turkey

“You’re deported,” one of my colleagues told me, citing his police sources. “And the police are after you.” Within hours, the police phoned my editor-in-chief, asking him to hand me over.

That night, I purchased two one-way tickets to Azerbaijan, the country where I was born. At 5 a.m., I surrendered to airport police in Istanbul. “Hi, I was deported,” I told police officers. Surprised, they told me that the official procedure requires police officers to capture me at my house and deport me, thus I had to pay fine.

They tasked a police officer with escorting me out of the country and I was deported like a thief. It was the moment when I realized that I may never come back to the country again unless the Interior Ministry issues special permission. I left my family and friends behind, without even bidding them farewell.

Violating laws

Turkish authorities violated several laws with my deportation and a strong army of lawyers, who undertook the matter voluntarily, are fighting back. I had valid permission to stay in the country until March 10 and I was supposed to extend the permit for another year by providing necessary documents that indicate I work for my newspaper, Today’s Zaman.

Let’s imagine for a moment that I won’t be able to extend my press card, or that I will be fired from my newspaper and there is no company that would be interested in hiring me. I could then present a document that confirms my marriage to a Turkish citizen, which makes it possible for me to stay and work in Turkey. It also allows me to acquire Turkish citizenship in a year and a half. I feel it necessary to explain this because a massive campaign is underway that claims I was deported because my residence permit expired.

Deported over a tweet

According to a document leaked to the media, a notice issued by the Turkish Interior Ministry says I was deported because of tweets that are critical of Turkey’s powerful Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Deporting a foreigner over critical tweets is a first in the history of journalism and constitutes a black stain on Turkey’s hard-won democratic record – a precious system of checks and balances we are rapidly losing these days.

Erdogan will be remembered as an intolerant leader who sent a family to exile just because he wanted to

Mahir Zeynalov

To save his regime amid a highly publicized corruption and bribery scandal, Erdogan is staging ruthless assaults on media, judiciary, business conglomerates, civil society organizations, ambassadors and “dark forces” in the West. For Erdogan, everyone is a traitor except those who give him a round of applause. Without even paying attention to profound negative consequences, his government is doing whatever it takes to contain the scandal ahead of three key elections. For a man who is deeply obsessed with consolidating power in his hands, performing badly in elections is the ultimate nightmare. His calculations suggest that the nation will vote his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) first in local elections next month and that it will be a response to corruption allegations. He did not make this secret in his speeches: “Our nation will bury all these graft allegations into the ballot box.” Until then, every anti-democratic and illegal move is halal, or allowed, for him.

He is trying to convince the public that the judiciary has been taken hostage by an “illegal gang” in a bid to justify removing prosecutors who could investigate these corruption allegations. It seems that this “illegal gang” is “unique” as it goes after those who violated the law.

Turkish media on life support

My deportation is part of this troubling trend that has wreaked havoc upon the freedom of the media in Turkey – driven by Erdogan’s never-satisfied appetite to shut down any voice that doesn’t applaud him. He sued me on Dec. 25, when I hit the tweet button on two news reports widely published in the Turkish media. The news reports were about the second wave of the graft operation, which was blocked by police officials appointed by Erdogan. Saudi businessman Yasin al-Qadi, who is on the U.S. global terrorist list, was among the suspects in the graft operation. Media outlets close to Erdogan launched a tremendous smear campaign against me, calling me a traitor to the country and accusing me of “attempting to show [that] Erdogan [is] protecting al-Qaeda.”

I was sent hundreds of insults every day by pro-government activists, many of them who were most likely paid to do so, aimed at provoking me for a response so that prosecutors would have a reason to jail me. Last month, I was called by police to testify. I dismissed the charges and said sharing two news reports that were published in the entire Turkish media should not be the basis for criminal charges. Being unable to press further charges due to a lack of evidence, the Interior Ministry ordered me to leave the country.

My wife, who is a Turkish citizen, was also forced to leave Turkey, leaving all her family, friends and career behind.

Erdogan, who was repeatedly re-elected with a convincing promise that he would lead Turkey to a consolidated democracy, has so far failed miserably to honor his vow. Instead, he will be remembered as an intolerant leader who sent a family to exile just because he wanted to.

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Mahir Zeynalov is an Istanbul-based journalist with English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

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