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Germany warns of fallout after Turkish lawyer's arrest

Austin Davis
November 27, 2019

German lawmakers believe Ankara has details about hundreds of classified asylum cases. Officials warned asylum-seekers they could be in danger following the arrest of a Turkish lawyer who worked for the German Embassy.

The German Embassy in Ankara
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Jensen

Lawmakers in Berlin convened a special committee meeting on Wednesday to discuss the possible dangers of Turkey's possession of hundreds of classified asylum requests after the controversial arrest of an attorney working with the German Embassy in Ankara.

Yilmaz S., the Turkish attorney the embassy had contracted to help process asylum requests from Turkish citizens, was in possession of 47 case files pertaining to 83 individuals at the time of his arrest in September.

"But the number of parties involved is likely much higher, as the attorney had been processing well over 200 cases," Filiz Polat, speaker for migration policy with the environmentalist Green Party, said at the committee hearing, according to the epd news service run by Germany's Protestant church. 

German authorities have already warned those involved that they could now be in danger. Germany granted protection to 45 of the people involved. While authorities found no reason to grant protection to two people involved, they will not be immediately deported, Lars Castellucci of the Social Democrats told the German dpa news agency.

"They vehemently stressed one point...I should think about my safety, I should be careful," Leyla Birlik, a former Turkish lawmaker with the pro-Kurdish HDP party who received asylum in Germany, told DW.

Maas and Cavusoglu shake hands
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas pushed last week for the release of Yilmaz S. with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut CavusogluImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Still in custody

Turkish authorities arrested the attorney in September amid accusations that his work with the German Embassy amounted to espionage. German authorities were quick to dismiss the charges. They insisted it is common practice for European embassies to contract local attorneys to process asylum claims. Berlin has demanded the lawyer's immediate release.

But with the attorney's case still being negotiated months later, German lawmakers on Wednesday began questioning the extent of the likely data breach and the risks it presented. 

"I have the impression that this is a very arbitrary practice in which massive amounts of sensitive data are being transmitted in a country that's trying to get its hands on this information,” Ulla Jelpke, a lawmaker with the socialist Left Party, told committee members.

Rainer Breul, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, told reporters that this case is complicating how authorities process local asylum applications in Turkey. But he insisted that the government would not distance itself from the practice and would ensure local lawyers and other individuals "are not put at risk through their work for us.”

Levent Kanat, Yilmaz S.'s attorney, told DW that the Turkish prosecutor pushed the start date of his client's trial "for the strange reason" that his court reporter is on vacation. It could now take as long as two weeks for the trial even to begin.

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A trying time

News of the arrest came at a trying time for German-Turkish diplomacy. Berlin has struggled to maintain good relations with Turkey after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan enacted measures to consolidate power in the aftermath of a failed coup attempt in July 2016.

In October, relations nearly reached a breaking point when Turkey, a NATO member, launched a unilateral offensive in northern Syria against Kurdish forces that were allied with a Western-led coalition against the "Islamic State" in Syria.

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Turkey considers the Kurdish People's Protection Unit (YPG) to be a domestic terror group. As such, Ankara sees German cries of foul play as a double standard that undermines the nation's territorial integrity, Ilter Turan, a political scientist at Istanbul's Bilgi University, told DW.

"It may or may not be fair…but there's an overall suspicion of the nature of the activities that allied missions are conducting,” he said. This latest development only exacerbates such feelings, which "are not confined to the government."

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Asylum-seekers question process

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government spokesperson, Steffen Seibert, told reporters on Wednesday that this latest test of the relationship between Berlin and Ankara will be handled with resolve.

"There are always cases — and in the past months and years we have had many — in which our interests and the actions of the Turkish state and the Turkish judiciary do not match," he said. "In the past, we have often succeeded in solving such cases, and we hope that will be the case in this example as well."

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Leyla Birlik, who has now lived in Germany for the past year, said she understands that this operation was extraordinary and only exacerbates the "crisis between both countries." 

But she told DW she wonders why she was only informed that she was involved in the case on November 18 and why the file that placed her in danger was still open months after her asylum request had been approved.

"They (German authorities) wanted to know if I had any specific requests — if I needed security," she told DW. "I would like to know what was still being researched five months after my asylum assessment."

DW's Michaela Küfner and Elmas Topcu contributed reporting.

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