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Germany accuses Turkey of 'intolerable' spying as diaspora heads to polls

Turks across Europe began voting on the constitutional referendum on Monday
A Turkish national living in Germany gets her ballot at a polling station in the Bavarian city of Munich, southern Germany, on 27 March 2017. (AFP)

Turks and Kurds across Europe began voting on proposed changes to the Turkish constitution on Monday, as Germany accused the Turkish government of "unacceptable" spying on dissidents in the country.

Turkish expats in Germany, Austria, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Denmark went to the polls to vote on whether to grant extra powers to the Turkish presidency along with a host of other reforms. Turkey itself is set to vote on 16 April.

Germany hosts the largest Turkish diaspora in the world and the 1.41 million eligible Turkish voters in the country have been a crucial demographic for the Justice and Development party (AKP) government. 

As voting began, it was reported that Turkey's National Intelligence Agency had given Germany's foreign intelligence service a list of names of hundreds of supposed supporters of exiled cleric Fetulleh Gulen living in Germany.

Turkey blames Gulen for a failed coup attempt last year and has sought to have alleged plotters repatriated to face trial. Thousands of alleged Gulen supporters have been arrested in Turkey since the July coup attempt.

'Not acceptable'

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, speaking in Passau in southern Germany, said he was not surprised by the report and added that the lists would be looked at individually.

"We have told Turkey several times that such (activity) is not acceptable," he said. "Regardless of what you think of the Gulen movement, German law applies here and citizens who live here won't be spied on by foreign states."

In the most recent parliamentary elections in 2015, German-Turks voted overwhelmingly for the AKP. Voting is open at the Turkish consulate in Berlin between 27 March and 9 April, when the sealed ballot boxes will be flown to Ankara for the count on 16 April.

Other countries are set to begin voting in the coming weeks. British-Turks, who largely support the opposition People's Democracy Party (HDP), begin voting on 6 April.

Turkey has warned Europeans not to interfere in the referendum, although German politicians have waded into the campaign.

Elmar Brok, a member of the European Parliament's European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) and chairman of the parliament's committee on foreign affairs, was among those calling for German Turks to vote "No" in the referendum.

“I advise Turkish citizens to use their vote against the constitutional changes, vote for freedom,” said Broke.

The leader of the left-wing Die Linke party went further, accusing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of being a "godfather of terror", referring to a speech by the president last week in which he warned that Europeans would not be able to "walk safely in the streets" if they continued their current policies.

“This is a call to terrorism, this is how a terrorist speaks. Nothing else," said Sahra Wagenknecht, speaking at an event at the German parliament on Monday.

Mimicking Erdogan's own rhetoric against Germany, she made parallels with Nazi Germany, saying the statement "clearly points to the foreign policy of the Third Reich, by creating minorities in other countries, it’s trying to establish its own violent policies, its own geopolitics and its own blackmail policy in other countries.”

Bans on some campaign rallies by Turkish officials in Germany and the Netherlands provoked accusations of Nazism by Erdogan.

On Tuesday, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim warned Europe not to interfere with the referendum process saying it should "mind its own business".

'Intolerable' spying

A minister from the state of Lower Saxony on Tuesday also accused Turkey of "unacceptable" spying on alleged followers of Gulen.

"It is notable with what intensity and ruthlessness the people living abroad are being investigated," said Boris Pistorius, interior minister of the northern German state of Lower Saxony. 

But Lower Saxony decided instead to inform the more than 10 targets, including a school and at least two companies, fearing people could suffer "retaliation" if they travelled to Turkey while unaware they were on a watch list.

Turkish authorities were acting with "something close to paranoia," she said, adding that "all Gulen supporters are assumed to be terrorists and enemies of the state even though there is not the tiniest scrap of evidence.

"Until today, we have no evidence whatsoever that Gulen supporters have violated any rules in any way."

Additional reporting by AFP

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