It was hailed as the biggest search-and-rescue operation in the eastern Mediterranean for a decade. But the bid to save hundreds of refugees on a stricken ship in the Aegean Sea has led to allegations that the operation bore all the hallmarks of an illegal pushback before the Greek coastguard was forced to change tactics.
Only days after 382 asylum seekers disembarked on the island of Kos, criticism has mounted over their “unnecessarily prolonged” ordeal at sea.
Dr Apostolos Veizis, who heads the humanitarian aid organisation Intersos Hellas, said: “These were men, women and children seeking protection and they should have been taken to a safe port after the vessel sent out a distress signal.
“The nearest port was just a few miles away. Instead, they were kept on the vessel for four days, an unnecessarily prolonged period without access to basic services.”
The Turkish-flagged Murat 729 had been heading for Italy when it ran into engine trouble off Crete and issued a mayday call on 28 October.
Onboard were Pakistanis, Afghans, Bangladeshis, Syrians, Iranians and Lebanese – the biggest single influx of asylum seekers in years – taking a route that has become increasingly popular for Europe-bound refugees. More than 100 vessels, ranging from yachts to decommissioned cargo ships such as the Murat, are thought to have traversed the sea south of Crete this year.
By 8.30am that day, Tommy Olsen, who runs Aegean Boat Report, a Norwegian NGO that monitors people movement in the area, had received the first pictures and videos from passengers asking for help.
“You could see the boat drifting off the island and a Hellenic coastguard patrol alongside it,” he told the Guardian from his home in Tromsø, north of the Arctic Circle. “It was packed with people and the shores of Crete were clearly visible.”
What puzzled Olsen, who claims to be contacted by people in distress – “the victims of pushbacks” he says – up to 10 times a week, was the refusal of local authorities to accept they had located the vessel.
“Why Greek officials would insist they had not found the boat and then begin towing it away from Crete seemed very strange,” added Olsen, a veteran of migrant solidarity work on frontline Aegean islands. “It instantly made me think that what we were in fact seeing was not just another pushback but the biggest pushback in years.”
Hauled in the direction of Turkey, the stricken ship spent the next three days being dragged across the high seas by the Greek coastguard.
“Every hour I’d get the boat’s geo-locations and you could see it going back and forth,” he said. “From 2pm on Thursday until the early hours of Sunday when the passengers were permitted to disembark it travelled 500km [300 miles]. All that time people were sending messages that they weren’t even being given water and that some were very sick.”
Greek authorities first acknowledged the Murat on Friday 29 October, saying it was in international waters off Crete and that Athens had appealed to Turkey to take it back.
The freighter’s appearance had come against a backdrop of escalating tensions between the two countries over irregular migrant flows.
Friction has risen as boats carrying migrants and refugees have set out, reportedly unhindered, from the Turkish coast despite Ankara agreeing to prevent illegal flows under a deal with the EU in 2016.
Since March 2020, when Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, encouraged thousands of migrants to enter Greece – triggering a crisis that would see the EU scramble to reinforce its land and sea borders – the Aegean has allegedly become a theatre for pushbacks, with human rights groups claiming that thousands have been forcibly moved into Turkish waters before getting the chance to apply for asylum.
“What is of particular concern in this case is that the government was attempting to return people who wanted to seek asylum in Greece before an asylum procedure had taken place,” said Minos Mouzourakis at Refugee Support Aegean, an NGO offering legal assistance to refugees and asylum seekers. “That is a breach of EU law and fundamental rights.”
Pushbacks were among the issues at the top of the agenda when the Greek migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, held talks in Ankara this week.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s centre-right government in Greece has vigorously rejected the claims about pushbacks – attributing them in large part to Turkish propaganda – but the leader accepts his administration pursues “tough but fair” border management policies securing the EU’s external frontier.
Explaining the length of time needed to bring the cargo ship “to safe anchorage”, migration ministry officials in Athens laid the blame squarely with Ankara’s refusal to respond to repeated requests for the vessel to be sent back.
But critics contend that the odyssey the refugees were subjected to, as the standoff unfolded, is also at odds with the Greek government’s version of events. Shortly after the asylum seekers were brought ashore, Mitarachi praised the Hellenic coastguard, saying: “Greece stepped up, providing immediate humanitarian support to people in need as we always do.”
Aid groups, piecing together the sequence of events, believe it was logistically impossible to push the ship back because it was so big and would have required the Greek coastguard also entering Turkish waters. Once it became clear a pushback was impossible, Athens resorted to appealing to Turkey, said Olsen, whose organisation is among a network of NGOs accused by Greek officials of aiding and abetting people smugglers – allegations he strongly rejects.
“We now know there were 136 children among the passengers and people with special needs,” said Veizis. “Instead of the Greek coastguard, which is a rescue service, bringing them to safety, the government chose to keep them onboard and move them around as it tried to come to a deal with Turkey. Deals are for business, not humans seeking international protection.”
It was, he insisted, the lack of safe and legal passage to Europe that was forcing so many to seek such dangerous routes.
Installed in their barbed wire-encircled reception centre in Kos, those onboard the Murat will be given the right to apply for asylum. The process is not expected to be easy: all must undergo 14 days of quarantine even if none, so far, have tested positive for Covid-19. On Wednesday, coastguard officials began taking their details.
Already Mitarachi has made clear his intentions. Announcing a meeting with the ambassadors of Pakistan and Bangladesh next week, the migration minister said he would request the return of all who were undeserving of asylum to their home countries. Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationals accounted for 252 of the ship’s passengers.
Interpol’s president: alleged torturer rises as symbol of UAE soft power | Global development
Maj Gen Ahmed Nasser al-Raisi’s ascent through the ranks of the interior ministry in Abu Dhabi is associated with the United Arab Emirates’ transformation into a hi-tech surveillance state.
His personal achievements include a diploma in police management from the University of Cambridge, a doctorate in policing, security and community safety from London Metropolitan University and a medal of honour from Italy.
Now, in a big soft-power win for the UAE and its attempt to legitimise its policing methods internationally, he has been elected the president of the global policing organisation Interpol – to the dismay of human rights defenders.
Often photographed smiling, Raisi is the longstanding inspector general for the interior ministry, responsible for the supervision of detention centres and policing. Multiple former detainees accuse him of using this position to green-light abuses, including torture.
“Raisi’s rise to the Interpol presidency legitimises the role and conduct of security forces in the UAE,” said Matthew Hedges, a British academic and expert on the Emirates who was detained there for seven months on espionage charges. Hedges, who was eventually pardoned, says Raisi was responsible for his arrest and also oversaw the torture he says he suffered in detention.
“This translates to a green light for states to continue acting in a way that abuses accountability and human rights, legitimises the dilution of rule of law and emboldens authoritative and abusive systems of detention,” Hedges said. “This is really a warning to the international community that cross-border abuses can and will occur.”
The Gulf state has previously said Hedges was not subjected to any physical or psychological mistreatment during his detention. On Thursday its interior ministry heralded Raisi’s win as “recognition of the vital role of the UAE all over the world”.
“The UAE,” it said, “is now at the helm of this international organisation working in the fields of security and policing and will do its best to make the world a safer place.”
In an unusually public campaign for the role, Raisi boasted of technological transformations that overhauled policing and surveillance in the UAE. These included the introduction of iris and facial scanning technology, and the creation of the interior ministry’s first “general directorate of happiness”.
His domestic policing changes underpin Abu Dhabi and Dubai’s status as two of the world’s most surveilled cities. One system, called Falcon Eye, deploys thousands of cameras to monitor not just traffic violations but also “behavioural issues like public hygiene and incidents like people gathering in areas where they are not allowed to”, according to a report by the state news agency WAM.
The rise in surveillance has been accompanied by a crackdown on domestic criticism and dissent. Human Rights Watch has said: “The government’s pervasive domestic surveillance has led to extensive self-censorship by UAE residents and UAE-based institutions; and stonewalling, censorship, and possible surveillance of the news media by the government.”
Abdullah Alaoudh, from the Washington DC organisation Democracy for the Arab World Now, said the UAE had been applying a two-pronged approach epitomised by Raisi’s Interpol win: “Cracking down hard on every voice of dissent, while investing in public relations like lobbying, soft power, sports and entertainment.”
Christopher M Davidson, the author of a book on statecraft in the Middle East, described Raisi as an example of “high-performing technocratic members of UAE political society” who had found success under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
“The key to the regime of Mohammed bin Zayed has been to get things done, to stamp out corruption. Despite all criticisms levelled at the UAE and Abu Dhabi today, it is a far less corrupt place than it was 15 years ago. These were the people entrusted to clean up ministries,” said Davidson.
Stamping out corruption has, at times, included arresting the wealthy and critics. Khadem al-Qubaisi, a former adviser to the royal family and a businessman who said he was “scapegoated” by the Abu Dhabi authorities for embezzling millions, is detained in Al Wathba prison. The prison, overseen by Raisi, also holds the human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor.
Riyaadh Ebrahim, who spent more than a year in the prison, said he witnessed torture there. “There is wrongful imprisonment, no application of the rule of law. People are being persecuted for crimes they did not commit,” Ebrahim said. He said he was “totally appalled” by Raisi’s victory in the Interpol election race.
Davidson said the UAE was using its wealth and resources to buy reputational shortcuts on the international stage.
“Policing in the UAE still has its problems, but this is a way of saying to the world that [they] are credible and respectable,” he said. “Obtaining the presidency of Interpol symbolises moving in the right direction.”
Jalel Harchaoui from the Geneva-based organisation the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime said Raisi’s election highlighted the struggle between liberal and illiberal nations within international institutions such as Interpol, and was a victory for anti-democratic countries.
“On the surface, Abu Dhabi – thanks to excellent soft-power outreach – markets itself as a modern state, which happens to be a dependable friend to all the major western democracies,” he said. “In reality however, the Emiratis, whose governance style has been partly inspired by China’s strict form of authoritarianism, always campaign against liberalism and its key principles.”
A spokesperson for the UAE embassy in London did not respond to a request for comment.
France reminds Poland on law in Paris meeting
French president Emmanuel Macron urged Polish president Mateusz Morawiecki to solve a rule-of-law dispute with the EU, while voicing solidarity on the Belarus migration crisis, in a meeting in Paris on Wednesday. Poland should “find a solution that safeguards the core values of the European Union”, Macron’s office said. Russian president Vladimir Putin told EU Council president Charles Michel by phone extra EU sanctions on Belarus would be “counterproductive”.
Turkey accused of using Interpol summit to crack down on critics | Interpol
Human rights activists have accused Turkey of using its role as host of Interpol’s general assembly to push for a crackdown on critics and political opponents who have fled the country.
The alert came after the Turkish interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, said his government would use the three-day event in Istanbul to persuade the international criminal police organisation’s officials and delegates to find, arrest and extradite Turkish dissident citizens – particularly those it labels terrorists – abroad.
Campaigners have long accused authoritarian regimes of abusing Interpol’s “red notice” system used to hunt down criminals at large, including drug smugglers, people traffickers, war crime suspects and terrorists. Turkish authorities have been accused of repeatedly swamping the police organisation with requests targeting political opponents.
There have also been growing concerns about politically motivated abuse of Interpol in the US Senate where a new bill aimed at ending the organisations’ misuse to “pursue, harass or persecute political opponents and dissidents with trumped up criminal charges” was introduced in July.
There has been angry reaction to the appointment of Ahmed Nasser al-Raisi, an Emirati general accused of torture, as the new president of Interpol. Al-Raisi was elected to the position on Thursday despite the alarm being raised over his candidacy by foreign leaders. The UAE has also been accused of abusing the red notice system to pursue dissidents.
The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, told the opening session of the 89th Interpol general assembly on Tuesday that he expected “strong cooperation” in the extradition of people suspected of following the US-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen and the PKK, the Kurdish movement.
On Wednesday, Interpol secretary general Jürgen Stock told journalists the organisation would not act on requests motivated by anything other than policing issues.
“If member countries decide to use Interpol they have to apply to our rules and standards. If a red notice has a predominantly political background we don’t take any action. If it’s political we’re out … we respect and protect human rights,” Stock said.
Interpol has rejected almost 800 red notice requests from Turkey in the past five years, an Interpol spokesperson told the Guardian, insisting that each request was rigorously checked. But critics from the Turkish Democracy Project claim some exiles have been unjustly threatened with arrest and extradition by the organisation.
“We are a policing organisation not a political one but we’re not blind to issues of geopolitics,” Interpol said.
“The committee carefully checks applications from countries where we know there might be a problem. We have a taskforce that reviews every single red notice request from every member country to make sure its compliant. We put a lot of resources and effort into making sure the red notice system is respected.”
In August, the Stockholm Center for Freedom, a non-profit advocacy organisation promoting the rule of law, democracy and human rights and focusing on Turkey, accused the Erdoğan regime of having “weaponised” Interpol for its wider campaign of repression against critics, human rights activists and ethnic or religious minorities abroad.
It added: “Turkey abuses Interpol in various ways. The International Notice System, such as red notices and diffusions, are used to target political opponents who have committed no crime other than being critical of President Erdoğan’s government.
“Turkey is also accused of manipulating Interpol’s Stolen and Lost Travel Documents database (SLTD) by filing tens of thousands of cases for critics and opponents who, in many instances, are not even aware that their passports have been invalidated.”
Campaigners are also concerned about Syria’s recent readmission to Interpol after it was banned for human rights abuses and war crimes fearing the Damascus regime will attempt to sabotage legitimate asylum claims abroad. Russia, China and Iran have also been accused of misusing Interpol’s red notices.
Interpol was set up in 1923 mainly to ensure criminals could not with impunity flee the country where their crime was committed. The organisation enables law enforcement agencies from its 194 member states to share data on crimes and criminals and issue arrest warrants.
Madeleine Joelson, executive director of the Turkish Democracy Project, said: “Interpol – once a bastion of law and order – has become a tool of transnational repression. Erdoğan, along with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, continues to abuse and degrade the liberal international order – distorting its true purpose and undermining its credibility.”
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