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Turkey arrests Syrian activist for allegedly spying for French intelligence

Ahmed Katie was charged with espionage after seeking asylum in France due to increasing anti-refugee sentiments in Turkey
Ahmed Katie is a prominent active for Syrian refugees in Turkey (X)
By Ragip Soylu in Istanbul

A Turkish court has arrested a Syrian activist and businessman, Ahmed Katie, on charges of spying for the French intelligence agency in December, a Turkish newspaper reported on Tuesday. 

Katie was reported missing in late November for more than two weeks before Turkish security forces alerted his lawyers that he was taken to the police station in mid-December for an official questioning on his activities. 

Now, Sabah newspaper, citing sources with information on his case, reported that Katie had been recruited by French intelligence, specifically by the Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE), which allegedly proposed granting him and his family asylum in return for services.

The report says Katie was supposed to feed “false” information on Turkey’s treatment of Syrian refugees and immigration policies to French officials, “which would put Turkey in a difficult situation in Europe”.

“Katie acted as a leader of a three-person intelligence cell and was tracked by the Turkish Intelligence, MIT, for a year,” the report said. “Katie received the instructions from the directors of a Paris-based NGO, which is under the control of the DGSE.

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Katie’s lawyer Halim Yilmaz, in a phone interview with Middle East Eye, denied that his client had been spying for French intelligence, adding that they will fight against the allegations in court.

Yilmaz confirmed that Katie was under arrest since 12 December on charges of espionage.

The court cited that examinations of his phone and computer were yet to be completed, therefore he would have to remain in custody. 

Turkish officials have declined to comment. 

A bizarre meeting

Katie, born in Saudi Arabia to a family from Idlib known for its opposition to the Syrian government, has a history of confrontations with Bashar al-Assad's regime.

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Ironically, his first arrest in 2005 occurred amid a government-declared amnesty for dissidents and their families. He was detained in Deraa, only to spend a year in the notorious Sednaya prison.

Katie was later arrested in 2011 after participating in protests against Assad in the Idlib province. After his release, he moved to Turkey as a refugee and secured a work permit.

Over the years, the activist became a prominent advocate for Syrian refugees and is well-known among Syria's four-million diaspora in Turkey, where he has been residing for nearly a decade.

A Turkey-based source, who is closely following Katie’s case, told MEE that Turkish intelligence officers met the activist on 19 October at a cafe in Istanbul and questioned him on his activities.

Bizarrely, he added, the officers asked him to buy a SIM card in his name from a store next door and hand it over to them. 

On 29 October, Katie announced on his Facebook page that he had put a total stop to his human rights and media activities.

He also filed a petition to the Istanbul prosecutor’s office to make clear that he only has two telephone numbers, and does not use others, such as the one he was forced to purchase in October, the source added. 

Seeking asylum in France

Yilmaz, the lawyer, said the security forces have been targeting people who are known for their human rights activism in recent years, especially if they were refugees or have connections to organisations abroad, falsely accusing them of being informants of spies.

He mentioned the Buyukada case, where many activists from mainstream NGOs, such as Amnesty International, have stood trial for years over conspiratorial charges.

'[Katie] is grateful to Turkey but the treatment against the refugees had been becoming really bad, he couldn’t stay silent'

- source

The source told MEE that Katie had been frustrated in recent years by rising anti-refugee tensions in Turkey, and had concerns that he could no longer raise his two children in the country. 

“He is grateful to Turkey but the treatment against the refugees had been becoming really bad, he couldn’t stay silent and he was criticising the Turkish government,” the source said. 

Katie, according to the source, filed an application for political asylum at the French consulate in Istanbul, using a rare exception granted by Paris to those who live outside the country. Most countries require individuals to first arrive in the host country before making such an application. 

“Under French law, he was supposed to find a sponsor, and through his network of friends who live abroad, he contacted the NGO, Friends of Aleppo Collective, or Collectif des Amis d’Alep,” the source said.

“Obviously he had a contact there and informed the person about his activities and filed an application to the consulate on why he no longer feels safe in Turkey.” 

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The source said everything Katie submitted to both the consulate and the NGO was open-source data and his articles were nothing secret. Fearing his arrest, Katie had sought to expedite his application after the Turkish security personnel met him in Istanbul in October.

“He was given a visa and scheduled to depart on 8 December, but he got apprehended well before that date in November,” the source said. 

MEE sent an inquiry to the French NGO but had not received a response by the time of publication.

The Sabah report, based on the court case, also alleged that Katie fed false information on Syrian refugees living in Turkey to foreign TV channels, including an incident that reportedly occurred on the Turkish-Greek border.

Katie, the report said, accused Turkish border guards of throwing 55 migrants into the river.

The report added that Katie was also accused of secretly obtaining personal biographical information based on the addresses of foreign citizens residing in Turkey and leaking it to French intelligence.

The French embassy in Ankara declined to comment. 

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