The Assyrian Policy Institute is deeply concerned by the January 9 arrests of three Assyrian civilians in Tur Abdin in southeastern Turkey. Syriac Orthodox Priest Sefer Aho Bileçen (who leads Mor Yacoub Monastery), local community leader (mukhtar) Josef Yar, and an individual named Musa Taştekin were arrested by Turkish authorities reportedly for alleged affiliations to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). According to several reports, these individuals have been accused of aiding and abetting a terrorist organization on the basis that they allegedly provided shelter and/or refreshments to members of the PKK. Their arrests were part of a wider raid of the area, reportedly conducted under the pretext of “search and screening operations.”
Bileçen, Yar, and Taştekin have since secured legal representation after being held incommunicado for several hours. They are reportedly being held by the Mardin Police Department awaiting trial.
Update (1/10/2020): API researchers spoke with Kuryakos Ergün, head of the Tur Abdin-based Mor Gabriel Foundation, by phone on January 10, 2020. Ergün expressed serious concerns about the arrests and impending prosecution. "These arrests send an alarming message to the local community," he said. "The fact that the authorities have gone so far as to detain a monk is deeply worrying. It sets a very dangerous precedent for the future."
President of Mardin Assyrians Union, Yuhanna Aktaş, expressed similar concerns to Ahval, stating, "We do not understand why a priest is detained."
Ergün, who helped secure legal representation, confirmed that Taştekin was released earlier today (January 10, 2020), however; Bileçen and Yar remain incarcerated while their counsel actively seeks their release. All three individuals maintain that the charges against them are false.
Update (1/13/20): Yar was granted a conditional release; Bileçen remains incarcerated.
Update (1/14/20): Father Sefer Aho Bileçen was released earlier today after spending six days in prison.
The PKK is a Kurdish militant and political organization founded in Turkey, but operating throughout the region, whose stated mission is to seek greater Kurdish political and cultural rights in Turkey. The PKK has been involved in an armed conflict with the Turkish state for decades.
Assyrian human rights activists are routinely detained on charges of terrorism and links to the PKK without evidence:
In late 2015, Assyrian community leaders were among thousands imprisoned by Turkish authorities, including Sado Ide Oshana, president of the Association of Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Aramis (AACA). He was accused of terrorism and imprisoned. He was released 14 months later and fled the country.
In November 2016, authorities removed Assyrian Mayor Februniye Akyol from office. Akyol had been elected to serve as co-mayor of Mardin two years prior. She was the first Assyrian woman elected to the position of mayor in Turkey, and at the time of her removal was the only Assyrian mayor in the country.
In March 2017, Turkish police stormed the home of Yuhanon Aktas, the chairman of an Assyrian organization in Mardin. He was arrested and accused of being a member of the PKK.
In early 2018, Turkish authorities arrested Petrus Karatay—an Assyrian who moved back to his ancestral village in Sirnak province after 30 years of living in France—on terrorism charges in response to a statement made to a journalist decrying the conditions for Assyrians in the area. He was later released and quoted saying: “Before I moved [back] here, I and my Assyrian friends spoke with many Turkish officials. They promised we could safely return and would be provided with support in our efforts for building a new life in our indigenous villages. But sadly we see that they are not keeping their promises….My detention and the ensuing slander campaign against me seem to be a message by the government to other Assyrians that they should not return to Turkey.”
Tur Abdin is a historic Assyrian region located in southeast Turkey. It is currently home to approximately 3,000 Assyrians belonging to various church denominations, namely the Syriac Orthodox Church. Large numbers of Assyrians have been forced into emigration as a result of the conflict between Turkey and the PKK since the 1980s, and the actions of Turkish authorities have created an intimidating atmosphere for those Assyrians who remain.