Turkish authorities’ decision to deny lawyers access to four men who were disappeared in February 2019 but are now confirmed to be in police custody in Ankara raises concerns that the men may be being pressured to conceal information about their disappearance, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.
The authorities acknowledged on July 28 that they were holding four men, Salim Zeybek, Yasin Ugan, Özgür Kaya, and Erkan Irmak, but have not revealed where they have been since February and are implying that the men were not in the custody of the state nor their proxies before July 28. The men were detained on various dates in February and are presumed to have been held in unacknowledged detention ever since. The whereabouts of two other men, Mustafa Yılmaz and Gökhan Türkmen, who were also reported missing in February, remain unknown.
“Lawyers have been prevented from meeting the men, in violation of Turkey’s laws, which fuels our suspicion that the authorities want to hide the truth about what these four have lived through for the past five-and-a-half months,” said Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch. “There needs to be a full account of what has happened to these men since February, and everyone implicated in their presumed enforced disappearances should be held to account.”
The families of the four men have been permitted to see them briefly twice in the presence of police officers, but the families’ lawyers have been completely barred from visiting them. When the families tried to ask the men where they had been since February, the men were reluctant to provide answers and the police intervened to stop further questions.
The Turkish authorities are legally obliged to grant the families’ chosen lawyers access to the men and to enable confidential meetings. They should also permit independent medical professionals to conduct full medical examinations of the four men, HRW said.
The families told HRW the police prevented them from asking questions of the men or learning anything about their situation. The wives reported that each of the men said, with police officers standing by, that they did not want to see a lawyer and that the wives should stop campaigning or lodging complaints about their cases and even withdraw existing complaints to international bodies and organizations.
The presence of police officers during these meetings, the men’s reported introverted manner of speaking, and apparent inability or fear to provide any information about the past five months fuels HRW’s concern that they are being pressured to withhold information about their treatment and to collude in providing a fabricated version of their detention.
The authorities suspect the men of having links with the Fethullah Gülen religious movement, which the Turkish government has labeled a terrorist organization responsible for the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. The government has carried out an unprecedented crackdown on the movement and its followers in Turkey since that period.