Yekta Uzunoglu seeks to clear his name in Czech courts

In 1994, Dr. Yekta Uzunoglu, a Kurdish businessman living in the Czech Republic was accused of torture, kidnapping, three counts of attempted murder, and robbery. His accuser was a Turkish national living in the Czech Republic under a dual identity—this man is suspected of having been a double agent, working for the KGB and the Turkish secret service, and perhaps even for the Czechoslovak StB. Dr. Uzunoglu was arrested by Czech police and held in jail for 2.5 years while the case against him was under investigation. Then, in 1997 he was released—with no explanation for the entire incident, and no apology. It has been 12 years since this case began, and Dr. Uzunoglu remains in the Czech Republic, now back in court and determined to have his name officially cleared.

"I never thought that a country which was always like my second home—a country for which I never hesitated risking my own existence in the 1970s—all of a sudden, overnight, it would become like Hell for me."

Dr. Uzunoglu may sound relatively calm, but what he has experienced in the past 12 years is unnerving, and the situation reflects badly on the Czech judicial system. So much so that since 1996 the Czech Helsinki committee has been drawing attention to Mr. Uzunoglu's case; several other prominent human rights organizations in the Czech Republic have also come to the defence of Mr. Uzunoglu. John Bok, the Director of Salamoun, explains what his organization is about and how Salamoun works.

"Salamoun, our group works because when all else fails, only those who are volunteering to help and not doing it for ambitious reasons are those who can perhaps assist needy people. It's not that we know how the cases will end, because we have no power and no connections. Our organization is something like VONS, which was the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted, and I would say that Salamoun is following in this tradition. Only Salamoun is apolitical, while before 1989 VONS was defending those who were criminalized and persecuted for political reasons. Now it appears that Salamoun is apolitical, but I don't think this is entirely the case because even in Mr. Uzunoglu's case, there are political elements, though at first glance it appears to be primarily economic."

Yekta Uzunoglu's relationship to Czechoslovakia goes back to 1972, when he arrived in Prague and studied at Charles University. In 1976, he organized other fellow Kurdish students in Prague to protest against the Czechoslovak government's friendly policy towards Iraq and Saddam Hussein. When Mr. Uzunoglu graduated from the medical faculty in 1979, the communist regime did not extend his residency permit and he went to work in France.

When the revolution broke out in late 1989, Yekta Uzunoglu returned to Prague to join his old friends from dissident circles. Life was good, and successful: a business, publications (including Kurdish translations of the Czech author, Karel Capek), and in 1994 a book, Economic Perspectives of the Czech Republic, among whose co-authors was also today's President Vaclav Klaus. Then Mr. Uzunoglu's world turned upside down—he was arrested, and spent the next 31 months in jail.

While we were sitting in Prague's Café Louvre sifting through the many pages of legal protocol surrounding this case, John Bok told me Dr. Uzunoglu's story, and why he has stayed in the Czech Republic to clear his name.

"It's an amazing story. I'm used to a lot of things, and even though Mr. Uzunoglu's case is so dreadful and unbelievable, it's not anything unusual for us because we follow dozens of similar cases in the Czech Republic, where people have been criminalized for different reasons. It shows that the Czech police are dangerous. We believe that a high percentage of Czech police produce crime themselves."

I understand that Mr. Uzunoglu actually attained German citizenship during the time he was in jail in the Czech Republic. He could have of course picked up and moved to Germany once he was released from jail. Yet he didn't do that. He's still here, so what is his goal now?

"First of all he moves between the Czech Republic and Germany, and he runs his business partly in Germany because he has German citizenship. It's very nice that the Germans brought him the citizenship papers to the prison, which proves that they trusted him. The Czech Republic should have done this [give him citizenship], because he also did a lot for this country. Mr. Uzunoglu wanted to open the case for two reasons: to show his innocence, because stopping the investigation in and of itself doesn't prove that he's innocent. People could still say that there was corruption. The second thing is that he wants to open the question and point out how dangerous the Czech police are, what kind of power and influence they have, and what sorts of people are harming this country and its justice system. So he's doing this for this country—in this sense it's much more important for us than for him. That he will clear his name is OK, but the second thing is so important in justifying our country. Thank god for Mr. Uzunoglu. I think that he's a very, very strong person and I could even call him a hero."

Dr. Uzunoglu's case has also caught the attention of other prominent politicians, including former Senate chairman Petr Pithart and senator Jaromir Stetina, who have both expressed public support for Mr. Uzunoglu. Mr Stetina explains his view on the case's larger meaning for Czech society:

"What has been happening here with Mr. Uzunoglu for practically the last 12 years is a great atrocity that represents the connection of mafia powers with some elements of our police force. Unfortunately, the state of our police force is very discredited, and the fact that after so many years our justice system has still not corrected the situation after the police provided false evidence in this case is shameful. It's also shameful that Mr. Uzunoglu was held in a cell for 31 months, even though none of the absurd accusations against him were proven or properly documented."

When I asked Senator Stetina whether he believes Dr. Uzunoglu can expect a formal apology from the Czech state and its judicial organs, he was sceptical.

"I don't have great faith in the matter, because the indifference to this situation is very strong here, and what's happening in our country only floats to the surface in such cases as Mr. Uzunoglu's. It's not the only case when someone has been wrongfully jailed in the Czech Republic. I know about a whole series of such cases, and recently I've been assisting in the case of Mr. Sebijev, a political refugee from Chechnya who has not been found guilty of anything in a court of law, but has been in the Pankrac jail since April 2005."

As Yekta Uzunoglu continues his battle in the Czech court system, there is surprisingly little attention being paid to his case in the national media. Senator Jaromir Stetina is a former journalist himself, having gained acclaim for his reporting from Chechyna during the war. Mr Stetina offers his view of the Czech media's hands-off approach regarding Uzunoglu's case:

"I don't think journalists are disinterested—the case is extremely interesting but no one wants to burn their fingers. To start digging around in a case so complicated, and a case that's 12 years old, this requires real guts, especially from a journalist. He has to take risks, investigate the case, and only then can there be results. I think that the support of the media could play a key role in pushing this case along."

As for Dr. Uzunoglu himself, he will be back in court on March 23rd, hoping that a Czech judge will finally clear his name.