The family of Bahtiyar Fırat, from the Kurdish-majority province of Hakkari, is concerned about his whereabouts after he was allegedly abducted by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) in İstanbul on October 14, the Bianet news website reported on Monday.
The new case of enforced disappearance raised concerns amid an increasing wave of crackdowns on Kurds in which Kurdish politicians were recently arrested, Kurdish mayors were replaced by state-appointed trustees and use of the Kurdish language was considered dissemination of terrorist propaganda.
Fırat (33) was first detained by police at İstanbul Airport before boarding a plane for Iran. During his detention Fırat was told he would be handed over to officers from MİT. However, after his plane took off, he was released and told that it was a “mistake.”
Fırat called his wife, Esra Fırat, when he was heading towards a hotel in a taxi, telling her what he had experienced at the airport. He also said during the call that he was about to be detained again as four vehicles had surrounded the taxi.
Bianet quoted his wife as saying that the officers were the same ones who had detained him at the airport.
Before his second detention, Fırat told his wife to go to the prosecutor in Hakkari if she didn’t hear from him within a few hours. Prosecutors allegedly told his wife at the beginning that her husband may have been questioned by MİT. However, they later changed their story and said they did not know his whereabouts. Esra was told to “be patient” and wait for the results of an investigation.
“They [MİT officers] abducted a man who had committed no criminal offense [in the past]. I know my husband is in the hands of MİT. I am waiting for an official answer. They should tell me why they detained my husband. He was a school bus driver. We have relatives in Iran. He was going there. He had previously gone there many times,” his wife told the Mezopotamya news agency.
The latest incident points the finger directly at MİT as Fırat was the 30th person to have forcibly disappeared since a failed coup in Turkey in July 2016. Many of the victims were abducted in broad daylight by armed men and were missing for months. Some of them turned up in police custody after intensive social media campaigns to learn their whereabouts. However, four of the abducted men, including Fırat, are reportedly still missing, with Sunay Elmas and Ayhan Oran missing for four years, and Yusuf Bilge Tunç since August 2019.
Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, an activist and a lawmaker from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), condemned the prosecutors for their reluctance to provide answers to questions about Fırat’s whereabouts.
“[And there is] another abduction incident. The prosecutor’s office has not done anything. There is no information. The same thing that we have experienced in other cases. Where is the Ministry of Interior?” Gergerlioğlu tweeted on October 19.
Correctiv, a German-based initiative promoting investigative journalism, presented a research report to the Council of Europe in December 2018 detailing the extent of MİT’s international and domestic abductions that mostly targeted Gülenists, a faith-based group inspired by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen. The administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses Gülen of orchestrating the abortive putsch and labels the Gülen movement a terrorist organization. Living in self-imposed exile in the US, Gülen denies any involvement in the coup attempt or any terrorist activity.
According to the report, kidnapped people were tortured in extralegal confinement in centers called “black sites” in Turkey.
Gökhan Türkmen, one of six men who were forcibly disappeared in February 2019 and who resurfaced in police custody months later, claimed at a court hearing in February that he was subjected to enforced disappearance and torture. He further said that men who introduced themselves as MİT officers had visited him in prison six times to urge him to retract his allegations of abduction and torture.
In April Türkmen’s lawyer had also filed complaints about the MİT officers; however, the Ankara prosecutor rejected them, saying there was no need to investigate the allegations.
“The authorities should urgently investigate Türkmen’s allegations that he was abducted, tortured, and pressured to remain silent, and ensure that he and his family are protected against reprisals for speaking out,” Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said at the time in reaction to the prosecutor.
The five other abducted men –- Mustafa Yılmaz, Salim Zeybek, Özgür Kaya, Yasin Ugan and Erkan Irmak –- have remained silent so far.
Following Fırat’s disappearance, critics referred to “White Toros” cases in the 1990s when thousands of Kurds were suddenly disappeared, allegedly by members of the dreaded Gendarmerie Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism Organization (JİTEM). The incidents were named after an old vehicle model, the Toros, because it was used in the abductions. The term symbolized the embodiment of fear of the state at the time. Today, “black Transporter vans” have replaced Toros cars as they have reportedly been used by MİT for the same purpose.