Osman Orsal / Reuters Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest against a purge of thousands of education staff, Istanbul, Turkey, November 3, 2016.

How an Afghan Immigrant From New York Got Caught in Turkey's Purge

Letter From Istanbul

In August 2016, just a month after the failed coup in Turkey, Mohammed Suliman Wardak set out for Istanbul from John F. Kennedy airport in New York, armed with his green card and a letter from his then-estranged wife, an American journalist. She was being held by jihadists in Syria and he was going to try to secure her release. But as he waited to board his flight, he made an innocuous yet fateful decision: he used a ten-dollar bill to buy a pack of mint chewing gum and a bottle of water, and when the cashier handed him five $1 bills in change, he pocketed it.

In May, I met Wardak at a café in a sprawling, crowded mall in Istanbul. “I should have spent the money,” Wardak told me, as he fidgeted nervously with a black cap and sipped his coffee. If he had, he probably wouldn’t still be stuck in a country to which he has no ties. He told me that those five $1 bills, together with his links to his then-wife, had led him into an absurd but nightmarish run-in with the Turkish government, which used the U.S. currency to accuse him of conspiring against the state and ban him from leaving Istanbul.

THE ONE DOLLAR BILL

Since the attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on July 15, 2016, Turkey has arrested around 100,000 of its citizens for alleged ties to Kurdish militants and Hizmet, the Islamic organization also known as FETO, which the government accuses of masterminding the failed coup. Evidence against the imprisoned is scarce and in some cases nonexistent. In Wardak’s case, a $1 bill could be considered proof of collusion in the coup because Turkish authorities speculate that Fethullah Gulen, the dissident cleric who heads Hizmet and currently resides in Pennsylvania, blesses the $1 bills presented to him by his followers and apparently, uses certain serial numbers on the bills as coded messages. Serkan Golge, a Turkish–American NASA engineer, who was found in possession of $1 bills is also in jail, charged with being part of “an armed terrorist organization.” Golge, who has pleaded his innocence, is both a Turkish and U.S. citizen, but the U.S. State Department has not been able to secure his release in part because of his Turkish citizenship.

The Turkish judicial system, which Erdogan has now brought under his control, is operating under a state of emergency in place since the foiled coup, which he has recently extended. Turkish lawyers say that the protocol for these judges is “guilty until proven innocent.” Gulen, the 76-year-old preacher, denies the charges against him, which include treason. “I don’t know the people who attempted the July 15 coup,” Gulen said in an interview with National Public Radio in July. “They might know me. They may have attended some lectures. I have no idea. But if I were to entertain that idea, if any one among those soldiers had called me and told me of their plan, I would tell them, ‘You are committing murder.’”

About 47,000 of those detained have been released, but many of them have been barred from leaving Turkey until further notice. They are under “judicial control” in lieu of an official investigation into their alleged involvement in the botched coup. In the meantime, those charged with political crimes must report weekly to an assigned police station as if they were on parole.

Wardak, a 28-year-old Afghan who worked with U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan, is among the accused. He was released from jail after spending a night in detention, but has been banned from leaving for a year. He was hailed as a hero in Afghanistan and was awarded medals for saving the lives of Americans and other civilians in a 2014 suicide attack that targeted an American aid organization. But in Turkey, he is treated like a criminal.

According to Turkish court documents, the government’s justification for holding Wardak is its “suspicion that he is part of an armed terrorist organization.” As proof, the document noted, “When his home was searched, $1 bills were found … Because there’s not enough evidence, he is not in jail but not allowed to leave.”

Sidar Ozturk, Wardak’s former Turkish lawyer told Wardak that he had to quit since he feared imprisonment for defending a FETO case. But he pointed to the irrationality of these charges in court records. “In the [prosecutor’s] file, there is no single piece of concrete evidence related to the client’s membership of an organization,” said Ozturk. “Carrying $1 bills has been added as a criminal element to the file of a person who has come from a country where its currency is the dollar.”

Wardak was so shocked by the charges against him that at first he wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. Now he’s struggling with anxiety attacks and depression. He has no friends or family in Turkey, nor does he speak the language. “I’m so desperate right now,” he said. “I can’t pay my rent anymore because I have no work permit here. I’m ready to go to the police and say ‘put me back in prison or let me go.’ I have nothing to do with any of this.” But the Gulenist charge is not the only one against Wardak. The Turkish government accuses his then-wife, journalist Lindsey Snell, of being an American spy, an allegation the couple say is bogus.

FROM WAR HERO TO CRIMINAL

Wardak grew up in Peshawar, Afghanistan, as the youngest of nine siblings. When he was only a few months old, his mother passed away and later as a teen, he lost his father too. Mustafa Wardak, his older brother, helped raise him. He lives in Kabul and told me over the phone that his younger brother thrives on helping others. “He’s a patriot,” Mustafa told me, in a worried tone. “He wants to serve and respect humanity. That’s the Suliman I know.”

After the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, Wardak moved to Kabul and joined a law enforcement unit that advised the Kabul police on combating terrorism. Wardak quickly became a rising star. Then in 2014, when the Taliban attacked the American aid organization, Roots for Peace, Wardak’s unit was dispatched for backup. He bravely walked into the gunfight and led a little American girl, her mother, and a South African man to safety. Wardak received a medal of honor for his service.

Although the Taliban had been threatening Wardak over the phone even before the attack, afterward, the threats increased. They even carried out a hit on his unit. Wardak decided that he had to leave the country, and so he applied for the U.S. Special Immigrant Visa available to foreign nationals who have worked on behalf of the U.S. government. Shortly after receiving his visa, he moved to New York where he enrolled in Berkeley College to study business.

Fluent in four languages, including English, Wardak felt at home with New York’s fast-paced way of life and earned a livelihood through day trading. He eventually met and fell in love with Snell, a reporter who covered war zones. But in February 2015, she moved to Istanbul to freelance. Wardak stayed in New York to continue his education. Snell, meanwhile, rented an apartment in Istanbul. She had brought with her their dog and later also adopted a cat. During this time, the two married, but continued their relationship long distance, with Wardak visiting her frequently.

In July 2016, Snell traveled to Syria to report on the war and two weeks later she was kidnapped by members of the al Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate. From captivity, she sent Wardak a letter asking him to take care of their pets in Istanbul and to take them back to the United States. Wardak bought a ticket to Istanbul and arrived on August 12. He stayed in Snell’s apartment and kept in contact with U.S. authorities and the Committee to Protect Journalists to try to rescue Snell. Much to his relief, she was able to escape her captors, but upon crossing the Turkish border, was thrown into a prison in Hatay. 

A few days later, as Wardak puttered around in Snell’s Istanbul apartment in his pajamas, half a dozen plainclothes Turkish authorities stormed in, searched the premises, and found the $1 bills in his wallet. They confiscated the bills, two of Wardak’s cell phones, as well as Snell’s computers and cameras. They arrested Wardak. 

And so, just ten days after his arrival, Wardak found himself in jail, even if it was only for a night. Snell, however, was held for two months until Washington was able to negotiate her release in October 2016. But Wardak, who is not a U.S. citizen but a permanent resident, isn’t privy to U.S. help. He remains in Istanbul to this day, unable to return to New York to finish his studies.

“What Turkey has done is tragic and nonsensical,” Snell wrote me in a WhatsApp message. “They’ve trapped an innocent young Afghan who was studying in America. There is no proof that he or I had any ties to the Gulen movement, nor any affiliation to any intelligence agency. My arrest was politically motivated—in fact, when I was released from prison, a jandarma [police officer] apologized and told me as much. I feel immensely guilty on a daily basis that he’s stuck, and there’s nothing I can do to help, as the U.S. consulate refuses to lift a finger despite his status as a green card holder. I pray daily for his expedient release so that he can begin rebuilding the life unfairly taken from him.” The strain eventually took its toll on their marriage, and Snell and Wardak decided to divorce.

According to the Helsinki Commission, at least nine Americans are in Turkish jails, including Andrew Brunson, a pastor who has appealed to U.S. President Donald Trump for his release. But no statistics on the number of U.S. permanent residents detained could be found.

“Generally, the United States does not provide consular assistance to non-U.S. citizens, including LPRs [green card holders],” wrote a U.S. State Department official in an email. “In such a case, consular assistance would be provided by the country of the individual’s nationality.”

But the Afghan consulate in Istanbul told Wardak that they couldn’t help him. Ahmad Shekib Mostaghni, the spokesman for the Afghan foreign ministry in Kabul, said that the Afghan government is negotiating a solution with Turkey on Hizmet schools in Afghanistan, but didn’t provide any further detail. Hizmet runs 2,000 educational institutions in about 160 countries and at Erdogan’s request to shut them, some countries like Somalia have obliged.

Wardak doesn’t know if he’s being held as a bargaining chip between Turkey and Afghanistan. (His appeal to drop charges was denied for the third time on July 18 in an Istanbul court.) The 16 Hizmet schools, which teach 8,000 Afghan students, have produced graduates who hold influential positions within the Afghan government, just as the Turkish Gulenists did in the Turkish government before the foiled coup. The Afghan graduates tend to be the most qualified and well-trained in science, math, and foreign languages, in a country suffering from a brain drain after 40 years of war. 

Ahmad Zaki Wasiq, the author of the forthcoming book The Importance of Afghanistan in Turkish Foreign Policy, said Wardak is probably not a priority for either government, but rather was simply and unluckily caught in the midst of the purge. It may help his case if the influence of the Afghan Gulen schools are curbed, but that’s a tall order for Kabul. The two countries have had historically strong ties and Turkey’s presence in the NATO mission in Afghanistan has been the most welcomed because of their Islamic connection. Some Turkish military vehicles patrol Afghan streets with the letters “Allahu Akbar” or “God is Great” written on the side. Turkey didn’t participate in combat against the insurgents, but it funded and built roads and schools and also provided health services. 

Since the coup, however, Turkish–Afghan relations have soured, primarily because of active Gulenist institutions inside Afghanistan, some of which Kabul has been reluctant to shutter. The Afghan Gulen schools first became a source of contention back in 2011 when Erdogan and Gulen, once allies, became foes. In 2014, Erdogan and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met in Kabul and Erdogan requested that certain changes be made, the details of which remain unclear. “Erdogan started cleaning up [Gulenists in posts] at his embassy and consulate in 2014 in Kabul,” Wasiq said. 

After the botched coup, a Gulen publishing house and an education tutoring center in Kabul were closed. Ghani refused to close the schools, however, but agreed to hand them over to the Turkish government’s Maarif Foundation, created after the coup to administer overseas Gulen schools. But the Gulen schools continue to operate in Afghanistan, Wasiq said, much to Erdogan’s annoyance. 

In response, Turkey has slowed its development projects in Afghanistan, such as the refurbishment of a university in Kabul and a historic school in Balkh province where the thirteenth-century Persian poet Rumi had once studied. The main sticking point for both countries is the Hizmet teachers. Turkey wants the teachers to be removed, but Afghan students have protested in defense of their teachers saying the quality of their education depends on them.

“Afghans in the schools have no information about the Gulen movement,” said Wasiq. “They don’t know anything about their political associations. People thought they were just Turkish schools. They had nothing to do with the coup.”

Meanwhile, back in Istanbul, Wardak tries to motivate himself to keep going, spending his days running, reading, and watching the news. He has maxed out his credit cards and is dependent on his family abroad for financial support. He said he feels aimless and lost. Every Sunday, Wardak reports to the police and signs his name to confirm that he has not left the country. 

“The last time I went, a police officer told me to find a smuggler and get out of Turkey,” said Wardak. “He said that was my only way out. But I want my name cleared and if the authorities catch me leaving, I’ll be imprisoned for terrorism when all I’ve ever done is try to save people from terrorists.”

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