Swiss foreign minister warns Turkey against illegal spying

Swiss foreign minister warns Turkey against illegal spying

ZURICH - Reuters
Swiss foreign minister warns Turkey against illegal spying

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Switzerland’s foreign minister told his Turkish counterpart on March 23 that his country would “rigorously investigate” any illegal spying by Ankara on expatriate Turks before the April 16 referendum that will decide whether the current parliamentary system should be replaced by an executive presidency.

During a meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Switzerland’s Didier Burkhalter underscored Swiss concerns that Turkey may have been using its intelligence network to monitor the activities of Turkish citizens in Switzerland in the run-up to the vote, according to a Swiss foreign ministry statement.

“Freedom of expression is a universal value recognized by Switzerland, which hopes that this freedom will also hold true for Turkish citizens whether they cast their votes in Switzerland or in their own country,” said Burkhalter, as he “underscored the validity of Swiss law on Swiss soil” and urged Turkey “to comply with it.”

The statement said Switzerland would “rigorously investigate illegal intelligence activities.”

Efforts to reach the Turkish embassy late March 23 were unsuccessful.

For weeks, Burkhalter has been trying to keep his neutral country from becoming too deeply entangled in a bitter dispute between Ankara and other European nations over campaigning by Turkish politicians to drum up support for a “yes” vote in the referendum among Turks living abroad.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has accused Germany and the Netherlands of behaving like Nazis for halting some rallies by Turkish ministers, comments that both countries have called unacceptable.  

While the Swiss government has been pressured by cities including Zurich to block visits by Turkish officials, Bern has refused on the grounds there was nothing to justify curbs on freedom of speech.

Çavuşoğlu had been scheduled to visit Switzerland for an event earlier this month, but that was canceled for lack of a venue. 

During the visit on March 23, Burkhalter also told Çavuşoğlu that he was aware of Turkey’s “difficult situation” following the July 2016 failed coup attempt, the Swiss statement said. 

Still, Burkhalter remained concerned about mass dismissals and arrests of people Ankara has linked to U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, who is widely believed to have been behind the thwarted coup.

“The declaration of a state of emergency does not exempt Turkey from its international human rights obligations,” the statement said, adding Burkhalter “stressed the importance of freedom of expression and the freedom to speak out for democracy.”

Swiss government statistics show 68,000 Turkish citizens live in Switzerland. The Turkish embassy’s website refers to 130,000 Turkish citizens.

Meanwhile, Switzerland has opened a criminal probe into possible spying involving Switzerland’s Turkish community, federal prosecutors said on March 24.

“The Office of the Attorney General has been made aware of concrete suspicion that political espionage has likely been conducted involving the Turkish community in Switzerland,” the agency said in a statement, giving no details about the probe  launched on March 16.