In Defense of Christians’ Richard Ghazal: US administration should take Turkey’s human rights violations seriously and apply binding sanctions

Södertälje / Washington – In the 2018 Turkish invasion of North and East Syria called “Operation Peace Spring”, Turkish proxy militias of the Syrian National Army attacked the countryside and villages around Rish Ayno (Ras al-Ayn) in North and East Syria. While defending their villages, three members of the Syriac Military Council (MFS) were taken prisoner by these militias. Although the three hold Syrian citizenship, they were later illegally transferred from Syrian territory to Turkey and subsequently illegally sentenced to life in prison in Turkey.

The Washington-based human rights and advocacy organization for Christians in the Middle East In Defense of Christians (IDC) has taken up the case of the three MFS fighters and is actively campaigning to get policymakers in Washington to put pressure on Turkey for their release. Suroyo TV moderator Metin Rhawi interviewed Executive Director of In Defense of Christians Richard Ghazal, a former US Air Force and intelligence officer. He is a Syriac whose family emigrated to the US from the Syriac town of Midyat in Tur Abdin, southeast Turkey.

Below is a written transcript of the IDC Executive Director Richard Ghazal’s comments (edited only for readability).

On the background of the case of the Syriac Military Council fighters who were captured in Syria but tried in Turkey.

Richard Ghazal: With the October 2019 Operation Peace Spring, when Turkey essentially extended a push into northern Syria, the Syrian National Army (SNA) captured 3 Syriac Military Council (MFS) fighters, while they were simply defending Christian towns in northeast Syria. I want to stress to your viewers that the SNA is not Syrian at all. In fact, they are a Turkish-proxy militia and a jihadist militia, many of whom are former ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra militants.

The SNA captured these soldiers, who are Syrian citizens and who were in Syrian territory. At no point during this event or prior to this event were they in Turkish territory at all. They were not in an offensive posture, but in fact in a defensive posture protecting their villages.

These 3 MFS soldiers were captured not by Turkish soldiers but by SNA soldiers and transferred into Turkish territory illegally. They were held and tried in the city of Urfa. When they were taken into custody they were severely beaten and tortured by Turkish authorities. No new process was afforded to any of them.

They were unable to understand Turkish authorities. They do not understand Turkish. None of the documents that they were forced to sign were translated into their own language. They were ultimately charged with membership in a terrorist organization simply for being members of the Syriac Military Council and the Syrian Democratic Forces. The irony in this is the fact that the MFS and SDF had been the United States’ arguably closest allies in the fight against ISIS over the last nearly decade.

They were initially sentenced to 7.5 years following the trial that wasn’t transparent at all. Again, they weren’t provided due process during or before trial. Following this initial sentence, the prosecution, who are essentially Turkish authorities, appealed the sentences and they were able to get the court to issue life sentences in Turkish prison for each 3 MFS soldiers. Following this extension to life sentence, there was no legal justification or any indication of what the rationale was for the life sentence.

So again, transparency is surely lacking. One thing of significant importance that I want underscore, is that the transfer from Syrian territory to Turkish territory is in fact a violation of the Geneva Conventions, i.e., the fourth Convention and specifically article 49, which prohibits the forcibly transfer of persons or group of people from occupied territory to the territory of the occupier. So, in this case from occupied northern Syria into Turkey proper. Because the transfers themselves are illegal, the subsequent trials and sentences were also illegal because the initial circumstances that led to the sentences were illegal.

On Turkey’s poor human rights record.

Richard Ghazal: It is important to know that these cases are just the latest in a long trend in which Turkey basically weaponizes the legal system against its Christian and Syriac citizens. We have seen this in the past happen to Father Aho, Father Yusuf Akbulut, and even American pastor Andrew Brunson who was held prison in Turkey for over 2 years, nearly 3 years.

The alarming thing is that Turkey is not only doing this to its own citizens or in the case of pastor Brunson to people inside the borders of Turkey, but also now dragging people across international borders and subjecting them to this weaponized legal system. And again, that is in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

About what In Defense of Christians has and can do in this matter.

Richard Ghazal: What we, In Defense of Christians and the Syriac community in general can do, is really to apply pressure to our respective governments who in turn can apply pressure on Ankara for Ankara to make this situation right. It has to happen through pressure; be it economic sanctions, be it implications on their NATO status as NATO-ally. That sort of thing.

We as In Defense of Christians specifically are working closely with our partners, including the American Syriac Union here in the United States, on a few potential angles through which to address this issue within the US government to bring attention to the issue, and then hopefully to apply pressure on Ankara. US foreign policy is a very powerful instrument. Our job at In Defense of Christians is to underscore the importance for the US administration as to why applying pressure on Turkey should be a priority.

As you recall, in an interview last year we talked about the CAATSA sanctions which were levied on Turkey as a result of Turkey’s acquisition of Russian anti-aircraft missile systems. The CAATSA sanctions are a good start but unfortunately too narrow in scope and not far reaching enough. So, the effect is that Turkey can get away with violating human rights, the Geneva Conventions, dragging people across international borders and illegally trying them.

This is really something the US administration needs to take seriously and apply more binding sanctions with serious teeth.

You can follow Richard Ghazal @richghazal