Are forced disappearances making a comeback in Turkey? That’s the question opposition politicians and human rights activists are asking following a spate of mysterious kidnappings.
Turkey’s government, they say, must investigate the cases of up to 12 missing men and prove that state agents played no role in their abductions.
One such case is that of Cemil Koçak, an agricultural engineer who was forced into a van in front of his eight-year-old son in June.
The two were driving home when another vehicle hit their car on a busy street in Turkey’s capital Ankara. Assuming they had gotten into an accident, Koçak told his son to stay seated and got out to assess the damage.
His wife, Özgül Koçak, recounted what their son witnessed: “Then, a dark gray transporter quickly approached my husband and three people from that transporter forcibly took my husband into the vehicle,” she said.
For weeks after the abduction, her son had trouble sleeping, she added: “He was falling out of bed due to nightmares.” Koçak’s family has not seen him since.
In a recent Human Rights Watch report, the organization’s Europe and Central Asia director, Hugh Williamson, said there were “credible grounds” to believe Koçak and at least three other men had been forcibly disappeared by government agents. Opposition politicians put the number at eight, and Turkey’s Human Rights Association, an independent NGO, said it had documented 10 cases as of last May. Another two abductions are alleged to have happened in June. All but one of the men remain missing.
The four cases identified by Human Rights Watch as possible forced disappearances share two things in common: The missing men all lost their jobs during the state of emergency that was declared after last year’s failed coup; and each has at least a tenuous link to the movement led by the exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses of trying to overthrow him.
The family members of several abductees have taken their cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which is familiar with applicants accusing Turkey of abducting their husbands and sons. In the 1990s, at the height of the state’s brutal war against Kurdish guerrillas, security forces disappeared hundreds of civilians, most of them Kurds.
Often, they were tortured. Some victims’ bodies were found eventually; in many cases, their fate remains unknown to this day. Over the years, the ECHR found the Turkish state responsible in numerous cases.
Under Erdoğan, the practice ceased entirely. Until, perhaps, now.
In broad daylight
A person is considered forcibly disappeared, according to a U.N. definition, if they are deprived of their freedom by someone acting on behalf or with the consent of the state, which then denies or withholds knowledge of their whereabouts.
There is no hard evidence of the Turkish state’s involvement in the recently documented disappearances, and the identities of the kidnappers remain a mystery. But the case of Önder Asan, the one man to have reappeared after his abduction, suggests that Turkish authorities may at least tolerate such tactics if it nets them a suspect.
Asan, a former teacher living in Ankara, was kidnapped in April. A witness described to state prosecutors how a group of unidentified men, who claimed they were police officers, dragged Asan out of a taxi and bundled him into a black Volkswagen van.
Six weeks passed without news of him until his family located him in a police station. Asan told his lawyer that before being transferred to official custody, he had been tortured and interrogated in an unknown place. A few days after his reappearance, he was jailed on terror charges.
Turkey has declared Gülen’s movement a terror group and anyone with the slightest connection to the movement can be charged with membership of a terror organization; Asan had taught philosophy at a private college linked to Gülen that was shut down by emergency decree.
Asan’s case is the one that has done the most to raise fears that forced disappearances have returned, because his reappearance in custody suggests a link to the state. The other cases are considered potential forced disappearances largely because of their similarities to Asan’s.
The other abductees profiled by Human Rights Watch also lost their jobs due to decrees. Koçak was dismissed from the ministry of agriculture last September. His children had attended a private school with connections to the movement; he’d paid the tuition fees via a Gülen-linked bank.
The two others — Turgut Çapan and Mustafa Özben — worked at Ankara’s Turgut Özal University, an institution the Turkish government closed down a week after the coup attempt, saying it was linked to Gülen. Çapan was an acquaintance of Asan’s, and was kidnapped the day before Asan.
The kidnappings all took place during daytime, and the perpetrators were apparently unconcerned about being seen.
Mustafa Özben’s wife, Emine, told POLITICO that according to witnesses, only one of the three men who abducted him had worn a mask, and that the area had been busy: “It was the time when students leave school,” she said.
Witnesses to the abductions of Özben and Koçak both describe the men being forced into a black or dark-colored Volkswagen transporter van, the same model of vehicle seen at the scene of Asan’s abduction. Security footage of the van, captured by nearby cameras, supports their testimony.
‘Deterioration of human rights’
With the exception of ruling party MP Mustafa Yeneroglu, government officials have not publicly commented on the abductions. Yeneroglu, head of the parliamentary human rights committee, told the BBC’s Turkish service that the committee had launched an investigation.
He added that the issue should not be politicized, saying: “Human rights issues are instrumentalized by different groups.”
Yeneroglu did not respond to requests for comment. Several other state officials and ruling party MPs contacted by POLITICO either did not reply or suggested alternative officials to contact, none of whom responded to questions. However, high-ranking ministers have repeatedly dismissed allegations of torture as untrue.
The Human Rights Association is monitoring several of the cases. Its secretary-general, Osman Işçi, said that it was too early to assess whether the authorities’ attempts to investigate the abductions were sufficient.
“I cannot say that there is no effective investigation in this case, but what we know is: There is a deterioration of human rights at a general level and unfortunately there is no effective investigation into torture and mistreatment allegations,” Işçi said.
Several families of the missing men have complained that the authorities did not appear interested in solving the cases. After Cemil Koçak was abducted, his wife Özgül Koçak reported the incident to the police and set about collecting evidence, including surveillance footage, which appeared to show her husband being followed by several cars.
Özgül said the police initially ignored much of the evidence she collected and suggested to her that her husband had faked his abduction.
The family of Murat Okumuş, an accountant who was abducted in June, also told of difficulties in getting the police to conduct a thorough investigation. Unlike most abductees, Okumuş did not live in Ankara, but in Izmir, a coastal city and fiercely secular opposition stronghold.
He had worked in the accounting department of a local hospital connected to the Gülen movement until it was shut down by decree last year. In the days before his abduction, he told his father that he thought he was being followed.
In the late afternoon on June 16 — a day after Koçak’s abduction in Ankara — two white cars approached Okumuş in a busy area of Izmir. Six people emerged to grab him. A close relative who asked to remain anonymous said there was surveillance footage of the incident.
“Two guys grabbed his arms, two others held his feet and lifted him up. They held his mouth shut so he couldn’t scream,” the relative said. Bystanders ran over, the relative added, but the kidnappers told them that they were police officers.
They bundled Okumuş into a car and drove off. Witnesses later told the family that uniformed officers who were called to the scene said that the kidnappers belonged to the “anti-terror department.”
As the Okumuş family tells it, the local police appeared reluctant to investigate. Officers initially refused to let the family file a missing person’s report, relenting only after their lawyer insisted. A secrecy order was slapped on the case. After the family began their own investigation, counterterrorism officers reprimanded them for doing so.
Emine Özben also began her own investigation after she felt the police was not taking her seriously. Officers suggested she contact a reality television show that tries to find estranged husbands, she said.
The police, she added, had also tried to intimidate her after she began speaking publicly about her husband’s abduction. She now hopes that her ECHR application will force the government to investigate.
She has yet to tell her three young children why their father is missing. “They cry a lot because of what happened,” she said. “Our lives have turned into a nightmare.”