March 24, 2017 / 1:30 PM / 4 months ago

Corrected: Swiss investigate spying on Turkish community

3 Min Read

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting in Ankara, Turkey, March 21, 2017. Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS

(Corrects raids in Germany to last month, not last week)

ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland has launched a criminal investigation into possible foreign spying on the country's Turkish community, federal prosecutors said on Friday.

The Swiss foreign minister told his Turkish counterpart on Thursday that Switzerland would "rigorously investigate" any illegal spying by Ankara on expatriate Turks before an April 16 referendum that could expand Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's powers.

"The Office of the Attorney General has been made aware of concrete suspicion that political espionage has likely been conducted involving the Turkish community in Switzerland," the office said on Friday, giving no other details about the probe that began on March 16.

For weeks, neutral Switzerland has been trying to avoid becoming entangled in a bitter dispute between Ankara and other European nations over campaigning by Turkish politicians to drum up support for Erdogan among Turks living abroad.

Turkey's president has accused Germany and the Netherlands of behaving like Nazis for halting rallies by Turkish ministers, comments that both countries have called unacceptable.

The Swiss investigation follows alleged political intelligence gathering in which participants at events at the University of Zurich in late 2016 and early 2017 were filmed or photographed.

One instance was in December, where Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet's chief editor was honoured, Swiss media have reported. The second incident was in January during an academic forum on the massacre of Armenians in Turkey 100 years ago that Armenians consider genocide, a term Ankara rejects.

The university in Switzerland's financial capital did not immediately return phone calls and emails seeking comment.

The prosecutors' statement cited a Swiss law that forbids intelligence gathering in the interest of a foreign state that harms Switzerland or its people. Punishments include up to three years in prison or fines.

Allegations of intelligence gathering by Erdogan supporters have arisen elsewhere in Europe.

Last month, German police raided the apartments of four imams suspected of spying for Turkey's government on followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, accused by Ankara of organising a failed coup last July.

The head of Turkey's Diyanet religious authority, Mehmet Gormez, denied its imams had been involved in illegal activities and said espionage investigations had defamed the organisation.

Swiss government statistics show 68,000 Turkish citizens live in Switzerland. The Turkish embassy's website refers to 130,000 Turkish citizens.

Reporting by John Miller and John Revill,; Editing by Michael Shields and Ed Osmond

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