ISTANBUL - The suspected attempt on the life of a German Kurdish football player and outspoken critic of the Turkish government is fueling suspicions the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could be targeting opponents abroad.
On Sunday, Deniz Naki's car was shot at twice while he was driving in Germany. The footballer escaped without injury.
“I could have died,” Naki said in an interview with Germany's Die Welt newspaper. “I always knew something like this could happen. But I would never have expected it to happen in Germany.”
Naki, who was born in Germany, plays for the Amedspor football team in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, has been strongly critical of government policies on Turkey’s Kurdish minority, views that last year saw him convicted and receive an 18 month suspended sentence for spreading terrorist propaganda.
Naki claims his criticism of the government made him a target of Turkish agents. "I believe it was MIT,” referring to the Turkish intelligence agency, “or someone who doesn’t approve of my political stance,” said Naki in the German newspaper interview.
Ankara has dismissed the accusation.
The attack comes one month after Garo Paylan, a parliamentary deputy of the pro-Kurdish HDP touched off a political storm by warning of such a threat. “I received intelligence last week over plans of assassination or a chain of assassinations targeting our citizens living in Europe, particularly those in Germany, an information that I have verified from multiple sources,” Paylan said. “This Turkey-based structure mobilized certain assassins for these assassinations,” he said. The deputy gave no details of what he meant by “Turkish based structure”.
In the 1990s, human rights groups blamed a series of assassinations of pro Kurdish activists in Turkey on rogue elements of the government, known as the "Deep State,” who allegedly worked with members of the local mafia.
The government and pro-government media dismissed Paylan's accusations as outlandish. But analysts say concerns are growing in Germany about such a threat.
“If we take for granted the intelligence reports from Germany, there are armed groups very close to the Turkish regime and they may act as henchmen for the elimination of opponents,” said Turkish political scientist Cengiz Aktar. But Aktar says such a move by the Erdogan government would be unprecedented.
“It’s not at all the Turkish method, it’s rather a Soviet method, of elimination of Turkish opponents abroad. In general, for Turkish intelligence services, it's not very common to act this way. But now maybe the tide is turning and they may be resorting to this kind of punishment and action, bearing in mind there are so many opponents abroad, especially in Western Europe.”
Turkish critics flee
In the wake of an ongoing crackdown following the 2016 failed coup attempt in Turkey, thousands of government opponents have fled the country, many to Germany. Berlin’s decision to grant asylum to hundreds of Turkish citizens, including some who Ankara accuses of being involved in the failed coup attempt, has deeply strained relations.
In April, German authorities opened a case against 19 Turkish imams accused of spying on dissidents for Turkey’s state-run Religious Affairs Directorate, Diyanet. Last month, prosecutors closed the case saying they were doing so, among other things, because they believed the defendants were acting under duress, under pressure from Turkish authorities.
The attack on Naki came the day after German Foreign Minister Sigma Gabriel hosted his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusolgu, at Gabriel's hometown for talks that both sides described as positive. The timing of the attack and speculation that Ankara was considering targeting its opponents, leads some to question whether the government or elements within the state would take such a step.
“I can't imagine Turkish authorities getting involved in this kind of thing at a time when all the speculation is that it would do such a thing. Unjustifiable speculation, perhaps,” said political columnist Semih Idiz of Al Monitor website. “But that does not mean there aren’t fringe organizations in Germany amongst the Turks, who are pursuing their own agendas,” Idiz wrote.
This month marks the fifth anniversary of the assassination in Paris of three Kurdish activists, including Sakine Cansiz, a co-founder of the PKK. The only person charged, Turkish citizen Omer Guney, died days before a scheduled court appearance. Guney was believed to have close links to the Turkish intelligence agency. Ankara denies involvement.
Whether Turkish authorities are implicated in the attack on Deniz Naki, observers warn it can only add to concerns in Western Europe that political turmoil in Turkey will at some point reach its borders.