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Vahe Sarukhanyan

Yerevan Denies Collusion with Ankara: Two Kurdish Fighters Arrested in Armenia Wind Up in Turkey

The saga of two armed Kurdish fighters who were arrested by Armenian authorities after illegally crossing the border from Iran, and then mysteriously wound up in Turkey, has caused an uproar in Kurdish circles and in the Armenian press.

Questions have been raised as to whether Armenia handed over the two Kurds to Turkey against the backdrop of ongoing Armenia-Turkey normalization talks.

Armenia’s Ministry of Justice told Hetq that Atilla Çiçek and Hüseyin Yıldırım, members of the People's Defense Forces (HPG) - the military wing of the Kurdistan Workers' Party - were paroled and were allowed to leave Armenia.

Whether the Kurds left on their own volition remains unclear.

Who are the two Kurds and how did they end up in Armenia?

36-year-old Atilla Çiçek (pseudonym: Leheng Dersim) and 38-year-old Hüseyin Yıldırım (pseudonym: Seid Tolhıldan), a Turkish citizen illegally crossed the Armenian-Iranian border on August 16, 2021. They were caught by Russian border guards and handed over to the Armenian law enforcement officers. Çiçek and Yıldırım were carrying two machine guns, one pistol, ammunition and four grenades, this according to Armenian law enforcement agencies.

Armenian authorities state that when questioned Yıldırım said that he had crossed from Turkey to Iraq, and then reached the Iranian city of Maku, near the Turkish border. He lived there in the mountains for one month where he met Çiçek, who also wanted to cross into Turkey. Çiçek said that since a wall was being built on the Turkey-Iran border, they decided cross into Turkey via Armenia believing it is a friendly country for the Kurds. According to their testimony, they paid an Iranian citizen named Ali several hundred dollars to take them to the Arax River.

In the court, however, the Kurds stated that they did not cross the Armenian state border because they did not realize that the border between Iran and Armenia lies in the middle of the Arax River and not beyond the barbed wire on the other side. Russian border guards caught the Kurds near the barbed wire, before crossing it.

Yıldırım also stated during the preliminary investigation that he and Çiçek didn’t plan to stay in Armenia since they knew no one in the country that would escort them to the Armenian-Turkish border. They planned to do that on their own, covertly.

Çiçek and Yıldırım pleaded not guilty in the Syunik Provincial Court that reviewed their case. They said they are waging an armed and ideological struggle against Turkey, thus the arms they carried.   

On January 20 of this year, the Syunik court sentenced the Kurds to seven years imprisonment for illegally possessing and transporting weapons and for illegally crossing the state border. The court also confiscated the three million Iranian Rials and US$5,700 they were carrying.

Armenia’s Criminal Court of Appeals Overturns Guilty Verdict

Armenian public defender Davit Gasparyan was assigned to defend the two Kurds and filed a petition with Armenia’s Criminal Court of Appeals․

On February 23, 2022, Armenia’s Criminal Court of Appeals (composed of Tigran Sahakyan, Armen Bektashyan, Sevak Hambardzumyan), overturned the Syunik court’s verdict, arguing the lower court did not systematically analyze several circumstances mitigating the responsibility and punishment of the defendants, noting it was their first offense.

The appeals court noted the two Kurds, while armed, offered no resistance to the Russian border guards, and surrendered voluntarily.

The appeals court decided to reduce their sentence to five years and to set them free on a three-year probationary period.

Armenia’s Prosecutor General’s Office filed an appeal to nullify the appellate court’s decision, but the Court of Cassation refused to review it.

Armenia’s Probation Service Never Followed Up

Since a probationary period was imposed on the Kurdish fighters, Armenia’s Probation Service, an arm of the Ministry of Justice, should have monitored their comings and goings.

The Probation Service should have first found out their location, established contact with them and properly notifed them about their appearance at the Syunik division of the service, and compiled their personal files. After appearing at the probation service, Çiçek and Yıldırım were to be registered, their rights and responsibilities were to be clarified with their signatures, and in case of non-fulfilment, their responsibilities established by law.

The Ministry of Justice told Hetq that the Probation Service (PS) did conduct its legal functions to locate and register Çiçek and Yıldırım, but to no avail.

This failure forced the Syunik division of the PS to petition the Syunik court on August 8 to launch a search for the two Kurds. The court granted the petition on August 22 and the Goris police department went to work. Later, to the surprise of local law enforcement, the two Kurds appeared in Turkey and were arrested.

As to why the appeals court did not impose a travel ban on the two Kurds during their probationary period remains unclear. The Ministry of Justice told Hetq that the court had the right to do so. 

Here, we can make some assumptions, including that the appellate court intentionally decided not to impose a travel ban on the two Kurds. But we will not delve into this hypothesis for the moment.

Then too, even if a travel ban had been imposed, what was to stop the two Kurds from leaving Armenia. They had already crossed the borders of several countries to get to Armenia and could just as easily left Armenia.

Moreover, it is not clear when they left Armenia. Was it immediately after the appellate court’s decision or later (assuming they left on their own initiative)? The fact is that the February decision of the appellate court entered into force five months later, and during that time the free movement of Kurdish fighters was not restricted. It was only after the case was handed over to the Probation Service in August that the Kurds were found to be “missing.”

While Armenia officially claims that a search was announced for the Kurdish fighters who evaded justice, many Kurds accuse Armenia of cooperating with Turkey.

Kurds Blame Armenia for Complicity with Turkey

On September 24, the Kurdish website firatnews.com published a statement from People's Defense Forces (HPG) accusing Armenia of extraditing the two Kurds to Turkey and thus violating international legal norms.

The HPG described the alleged extradition as a “disgrace for Armenia” given the Armenian people’s historical oppression at the hands of the Turkish state.

“Comrades Leheng and Alişer encountered forces of the Armenian state in the border area with Armenia in August 2021 and acted prudently to prevent a negative situation. However, they were arrested, detained, and charged. Our friends fought legally and were brought before the Armenian Court of Appeal on 23 February 2022, which decided to release them. According to international and Armenian law, they should have been released. Instead, they were abducted and detained by the Armenian secret service. Although they were promised release after initiatives were taken, they were extradited from Armenia to Turkey about a month ago," reads the HPG statement.

Two days later, the website published a statement by the Kurdistan National Congress (KNK) Executive Council condemning the Armenian government for handing over two guerrillas to the Turkish state, saying that it was a "betrayal to the Kurdish and Armenian people and human values".

The KNK accused the Pashinyan government of collusion with Ankara and handing over the two Kurds to the Turkish intelligence service MIT.

“Moreover, the Pashinyan government has approved the 1915 genocide against the Armenian people with this attitude and became a partner with the invaders of Karabakh. At the same time, this attitude is an attempt to demolish the friendship bridge between the Kurdish and Armenian people,” reads the KNK statement.

Armenian Security Service, Justice Ministry Deny “Handing Over” Kurds to Turkey

In response to the Kurdish accusations and questions raised in the Armenian press, Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) announced that the process of handing over persons convicted in criminal proceedings is outside its scope of authority.

Clearly the NSS was pointing an accusatory finger back at the Ministry of Justice. The ministry quickly responded that while it is authorized to transfer convicts to their country of citizenship to serve the rest of their sentence, it did not hand over Atilla Çiçek and Hüseyin Yıldırım to Turkey.

"The issue of handover or transfer of the mentioned persons was not discussed at the Ministry of Justice," the ministry declared in a statement.

While the Ministry of Justice declares that it has neither “handed over nor transferred” the Kurds to Turkey there is a subtle but significant difference in the terms used. They are two different legal processes.

Foreign convicts convicted of any crime in a given country who are serving a sentence can be “transferred” to the country of their citizenship to serve the rest of their sentences in accordance with the procedure established by bilateral and multilateral international agreements. If a foreigner convicted in Armenia petitions to serve the rest of their sentence in the country of his citizenship, the Ministry of Justice examines the documents and the justice minister either approves or denies the request.   

The process of “handing over” convicts is the same as extradition. This is the case when one state, for example, Armenia, discovers in its territory a person who has committed a crime and is wanted in the territory of another state, or a person who has already been convicted and is evading (is on the run from) justice. Based on international or bilateral agreements, Armenia hands over the wanted person to the given state to continue the criminal prosecution there or to execute the existing sentence.

Moreover, if the case of the wanted person is at the stage of preliminary investigation, it is the Prosecutor General of Armenia who decides whether to hand him/her over to the given country. And if there is a judgment against the wanted person, or the case is in court, the decision not to extradite is made by the Minister of Justice of Armenia, and to decide to extradite him, the minister applies to the Armenian court that approves or rejects the petition.

Note that, according to the Turkish press, both Çiçek and Yıldırım were wanted by Turkey. Turkey claims Yıldırım is responsible for the September 2012 car bomb attack in Dersim that killed six Turkish soldiers and one woman. Yıldırım is also accused of an August 2020 attack that killed two Turkish soldiers. Turkey accuses Çiçek of conducting "terrorist activities" in Syria and Iran for many years.

Although Armenia’s Ministry of Justice claims it never discussed handing over the two Kurds to Turkey, nevertheless, considering that they were wanted in Turkey, Hetq asked Minister of Justice Karen Andreasyan whether he had petitioned the Armenian court for the Kurds to be handed over to Turkey.

The press secrtetary of the Ministry responded that: “The Ministry has not submitted any petition to the competent court of the Republic of Armenia regarding the extradition of Atilla Çiçek and Hüseyin Yıldırım to any country, in particular to the Republic of Turkey, because it has not received any request from the Turkish side that said citizens are wanted in Turkey.”

We then asked Andreasyan to explain how then did the two Kurds mysteriously wind up in Turkey?

"Considering that the court did not set a restriction on leaving the territory of Armenia, the circumstances of Atilla Çiçek's and Hüseyin Yıldırım's discovery in Turkey, as well as providing clarifications about them, are beyond the scope of the powers of the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Armenia, defined by the Constitution and the Ministry's charter,” the ministry responded.

The Ministry of Justice also denied that it colluded with the Turkish Ministry of Justice or any other Turkish agency regarding the two Kurds.

The ministry evidently wants to wash its hands of the entire matter.

When asked to comment on allegations that the Armenian government handed over the two Kurds to Ankara as a good will gesture given ongoing normalization talks with Turkey, the justice ministry ruled out any linkage, adding that it cannot comment on such political rumors.

“The Armenian Ministry of Justice cannot interpret any information circulating on social networks that is not in line with reality in any other way than by presenting to the public the information about the difference between the processes of transfer and handover of convicts, the order of their implementation and the general inapplicability of these procedures to Atilla Çiçek and Hüseyin Yıldırım.”

How Did the Kurdish Fighters End Up in Turkey?

Since the Armenian Ministry of Justice denies it had anything to do with Atilla Çiçek and Hüseyin Yıldırım crossing into Turkey from Armenia border, the two Kurdish fighters either did so legally or illegally. There are no other options.  

Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS), which manages the Border Guard Service, could have put the entire matter to rest by declaring that Atilla Çiçek and Hüseyin Yıldırım legally crossed the Armenian border on such and such a day. But it didn’t, raising more unanswered questions.

Instead, responding to criticism directed at it by Kurdish and domestic sources, angrily shot back:

"The NSS urges to refrain from the impermissible practice of spreading misinformation that tarnishes the reputation of state institutions and undermines the country's external security and warns that the service will investigate the real motives and hidden motives of those spreading false news through verification operations within the scope of its powers."

In the end, we have various Armenian government agencies relying on their tried-and-true default fallback argument that “such matters fall outside the scope of our jurisdiction.”

Such mealy-mouth prevarications as to how these two Kurds, caught and convicted in Armenia, wound up in Turkey endanger little confidence in Pashinyan and his administration especially given the backdrop of normalization talks with Ankara. 

Comments (1)

Hamo moskofian
A bunch of lies, our Kurdish comrades were kidnapped and handed to the Turkish national criminal security by the Traitor Pashinoghlu regime dogs, spitting in the powerful Kurdish-Armenian joint struggle against Erdiganist dictatorship. A regime that handed 13000 Sq km Free Artsakh lands, 5000 Armenian soldiers blood to the Turkish Azeri butchers did the same to our heroic comrades of HPG. Shame on you tfooii

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