Online event sheds light on Turkey’s enforced disappearances

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The Turkey Tribunal, a civil society-led symbolic international tribunal to review and deliver judgment on Turkey’s human rights record, held a webinar on Wednesday to discuss enforced disappearances in the country, with the participation of some of the most prominent experts in the area of enforced disappearance.

Cases following the same pattern

Lawyer Johan Heymans from the Belgian law firm Van Steenbrugge Advocaten, who is also one of the rapporteurs of the tribunal with his report “Abductions in Turkey Today,” said his report aims to ascertain whether the Turkish state is responsible for the disappearance of dozens of government critics reported missing since 2016 and whether Turkish authorities have allowed effective investigation into the incidents.

Heymans underlined that his report was based on substantial evidence such as court records, testimonies, eyewitnesses and security camera footage rather than opinions or suspicions. He said the abductions inside Turkey follow the same pattern whereby political opponents of the government are forced into black vans in broad daylight and do not reappear for months or years, or they don’t reappear at all.

According to Heymans, despite the denial of Turkish authorities, available CCTV footage and eyewitness accounts demonstrate that the abductors introduced themselves as police officers, the victims often turned up in police custody and they were initially not allowed to see lawyers or family members upon resurfacing.

“If you take everything together, everything that surrounds the incidents, it is clear that the Turkish state is involved,” Heymans said. He added that Turkish government critics have also been forcibly returned from abroad for which Turkish government officials proudly and openly took responsibility.

As to whether the authorities effectively investigated the allegations, Heymans said complaints filed by family members were not adequately examined, or, in some instances, disregarded altogether. For instance, eyewitnesses provided by family members were not interviewed, according to Heymans.

“Some family members managed to obtain an astonishing amount of evidence by themselves,” Heymans said. “But it was not accepted.”

The lawyer concluded that Turkey failed to effectively investigate the disappearances.

Victims, relatives intimidated into keeping silent

 Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), said while Turkey does have a long history of enforced disappearances dating back several decades, the incidents after 2016 should not be seen as a continuation of the phenomenon since the disappearances in the 1990s were much greater in number and mostly ended in death, while those who went missing over the past few years often resurfaced.

A couple dozen cases have been reported in Turkey since a coup in 2016, of which HRW looked in detail at 16, according to Webb.

Webb said that in some incidents, there is available camera footage either of the moment of abduction itself or of the events leading up to the incidents.

“Families have been very effective in gathering evidence, getting hold of camera footage and witness testimonies,” Webb said.

Webb pointed out that after some of the abductees were released, their family members stopped campaigning on social media and dropped their complaints with national and international authorities. She said this was understandable if their release was on condition of remaining silent and dropping the complaints or if this came out of fear of reprisals.

“HRW has not been able to speak to some of the victims after their release,” Webb said.

Webb emphasized that it is not possible to investigate any further unless people are willing to testify and named a few exceptional cases where the victims spoke out despite pressure, such as Önder Asan, who went missing in 2017 and filed a complaint after resurfacing.

“He was imprisoned, he is still in prison and as far as we know his complaint went nowhere,” Webb said.

Another example Webb gave was Gökhan Türkmen, who in February 2020 spoke at a court hearing about how he was abducted. Afterward, Türkmen’s wife was also imprisoned.

Webb said the lawyer Türkmen’s family had retained was initially not allowed to see him when he turned up and that he was provided with a lawyer by the authorities. Türkmen was also later put under significant pressure by state officials who visited him six times in prison, urging him to retract his court testimony.

‘A state policy’

 Eren Keskin, a lawyer representing the Turkish-based Human Rights Association (İHD), said Turkey has a long history of disappearance of persons perceived as a threat by the government.

“As the human rights movement we started witnessing disappearances in police custody in the 1990s. Amid the clashes between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK] and the Turkish security forces, the forcible disappearance of people emerged as a policy,” Keskin said.

“The most significant problem in fighting against disappearances is the fact that Turkey has unfortunately not signed the UN convention against enforced disappearances, which is why the statute of limitations for murder is applied in cases of enforced disappearance,” Keskin said. “The files are closed 20 years later without doing anything at all. There has not been a single case where we have obtained results from the domestic judiciary.”

While Turkey is not a signatory to the UN document, it still has obligations under other international treaties, such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Convention Against Torture, none of which is observed by Turkey, according to Keskin.

“Disappearing in custody means death. Even though it is not revealed, it negatively affects families’ lives as they do not want to admit that these people are dead.”

Keskin gave the example of Cemil Kırbayır, who in September 1980 went missing in custody in the eastern province of Kars and was never heard from again.

“The family was not given any information. They were threatened and had to move to İstanbul due to the pressure,” Keskin said. “In 2010 then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with the families of those who had disappeared and promised Kırbayır’s mother that he would resolve her son’s case.”

“A commission was subsequently set up in parliament to research Kırbayır’s case, and it found that between 1980 and 2010 no investigation was conducted into his disappearance.

“Kars prosecutors launched an investigation at the request of parliament that still has not been concluded, and we recently learned that the prosecutors filed a request with the Ministry of Justice to drop the case due to the expiration of the statute of limitations,” Keskin said.

Keskin claimed that abductions are a means of threatening dissent and that they were reintroduced after the 2016 coup attempt.

Yusuf Bilge Tunç: Missing for 500 days

The webinar also featured testimony by Mustafa Tunç, the father of former public servant Yusuf Bilge Tunç, who was reported missing in Ankara in August 2019.

Tunç said prosecutors refused to conduct a crime scene investigation on his son’s car, which was found in the parking lot of an Ankara shopping mall, and that the prosecutor in charge of the case was replaced three times.

“The latest prosecutor said, ‘I have not been able to look at the file,’ when our lawyer asked about our case,” Tunç said.

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