Palestinian man found dead in Turkish prison a possible casualty of deepening Middle East political fault line
As observers await a reported second autopsy for an alleged United Arab Emirates “spy” who died in a Turkish prison, analysts told The Media Line the case could become part of an ideological struggle between Turkey and its Gulf foes centered on the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Gaza Strip-born man named as Zaki Y. M. Hasan was found hanging from his bathroom door last month, according to a Turkish prosecutor’s office. However, his family said there was evidence of torture after his body was recently sent to Egypt.
A senior Turkish official reportedly stated that Hasan, along with another man detained over espionage charges, confessed to spying on Arab nationals in the country. Turkey denied the man was tortured.
Turkish authorities were investigating whether Hasan and others had connections to the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia, an ally of UAE, is accused of murdering Khashoggi in Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul to stifle his criticism of the kingdom’s rulers.
Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former parliamentarian with the main Turkish opposition party, stressed that while ill treatment of detainees is not uncommon in Turkey, it is impossible to know whether claims of torture are accurate, although the Egyptian autopsy may provide more clues.
He said Turkish authorities likely took their own photos of the body, and whether both sides are willing to release their respective information will be key to figuring out what happened.
Regardless, the case is liable to affect relations between the countries.
“This issue will continue to antagonize [Ankara] and Abu Dhabi,” Erdemir told The Media Line. “This could become part of the greater struggle between Erdogan and what he sees as the enemies of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded over 90 years ago in Egypt, where it has been blacklisted by Presient Abdel al-Fattah el-Sisi, and has since gained influence in other Middle Eastern countries.
Istanbul is a hub for many Arab dissidents fleeing autocratic rule in the region, despite Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s own crackdown on Turkish political opponents, civil servants and journalists.
Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have likewise designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and consider Erdogan and his Islamist AK Party an ally of the group.
Further complicating matters, Turkey has also provided support to Qatar during a blockade imposed by the House of Saud and its Gulf partners in 2017.
Erdemir stated that there is no way to know whether the Gulf states are sending spies to Turkey but qualified that the fight over the Muslim Brotherhood is transnational and involves proxies working on behalf of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others.
“It would be plausible that all the parties involved use a wide range of spies.”
Turkish state broadcaster TRT reported Hasan was a former senior Palestinian intelligence official. Saudi television aired an interview with a man claiming to be his son who stated Hasan went to Turkey only to look for work.
Max Hoffman, associate director of National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress, agrees that Hasan’s death is likely part of an ideological divide over the future nature of Islam.
“It is speculative, but we have to assume that this is all caught up in a broader contest for influence between the more Muslim Brotherhood-sympathetic forces in the region, including Turkey, and the ‘counter-revolutionaries] in Saudi Arabia, the UAE [and] Egypt,” he wrote in an email to The Media Line.
Ebru Erdem Akcay, a Turkish-American political scientist, told The Media Line that this case is indeed a manifestation of a regional split, with Turkey and Qatar on one side, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other.
“The way the government-controlled Turkish media made the capture and the confession of the UAE ‘spies’ a big deal was evidence that these individuals would be thrown into the deepening Middle Eastern political fault line.”