By Sinisa Jakov Marusic
As Ankara demands that Balkan neighbours hand over suspected ‘Gulenists’, Skopje says it is already considering 15 requests for extradition – but any final decisions must lie with the judicial authorities.
The North Macedonian Justice Ministry on Wednesday said that it had started extradition procedures to Turkey for 15 persons this year and last year – but it was up to courts in the country to rule on the procedures.
“There are currently 15 requests for extradition [to Turkey] related to terrorism charges. All these procedures are ongoing and the institutions in charge are communicating,” the ministry said, adding that they have addressed all these requests to the courts for further decision-making.
North Macedonia and Turkey have not revealed the identities of the wanted persons, but the Turkish embassy in Skopje on Tuesday told the local Vecer daily newspaper that they include heads of educational institutions and members of Turkish-language media and NGOs working in the country.
Government sources in Skopje confirmed to BIRN on Wednesday, on condition of anonymity, that all 15 extradition requests refer to Turkish citizens.
During an April 3 visit to Skopje, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar stepped up pressure on Skopje to deliver suspected supporters of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara considers terrorists. He said he expected North Macedonia to take action.
“Getting rid of this terrorist calamity with concrete steps would be in favour of both countries because they [the Gulen supporters] harm bilateral relations,” Akar said, after meeting North Macedonian Defence Minister Radmila Shekerinska.
Although Akar underlined the traditional close friendship between the two countries, some Macedonian media saw the statement as a form of blackmail, as Turkey has not yet ratified North Macedonia’s NATO accession protocol.
At a panel debate, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev on Tuesday said that institutions should act on Turkish requests, based on the evidence and on domestic and international law. The state prosecution was directly in charge of the process, he added.
“If they [the prosecution] find any evidence [of crimes], they should act even if Turkey does not demand this from us,” Zaev said, stressing the importance of friendship with Turkey.
“At the same time, we are a European country that strives to become part of the EU, so we have to respect fully all international rules,” Zaev added.
Turkey and North Macedonia do not have a signed bilateral extradition protocol but the two countries have traditionally close relations and have developed economic and military cooperation.
This is not the first time that Turkey has demanded action from its Balkan neighbours against alleged Gulenists.
On several occasions, Turkey has pointed a finger to educational institutions, companies, media outlets and NGOs in North Macedonia, demanding action be taken against them.
In January, ethnic Turks from Macedonia protested in front of the Turkish embassy in Skopje after the North Macedonian government decided to give financial support to the Turkish-language newspaper Zaman, which Ankara had pronounced a terrorist outlet, despite its denials.
Ankara holds the US-based cleric Gulen responsible for a failed coup in Turkey in July 2015 and has since cracked down hard on his supporters at home and in the region, calling them the FETO, short for Fethullah Terrorist Organisation.
Gulen has denied responsibility for the failed coup, and the US has so far ignored Turkish demands for it to extradite him.