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Tribunal hears presentation of report on Turkey’s enforced disappearances

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Bünyamin Tekin, Geneva

The judges of the Turkey Tribunal, a civil society-led, symbolic international tribunal established to adjudicate recent human rights violations in Turkey, on Monday heard lawyer Johan Heymans present a report on enforced disappearances perpetrated by Ankara.

“Abductors never worried about witnesses or cameras,” Heymans said in presenting his report, pointing to the audacity of the abductors as circumstantial evidence of government involvement.

Heymans based his report on the findings of the Ankara Bar Association.

Differentiating between the internal abductions — enforced disappearances taking place within Turkey’s borders — and international abductions, the report states that it can be established beyond reasonable doubt Ankara has abducted 25 people in Turkey since 2016, when an attempted coup shook the country to its core.

“All abductees, consequently, disappeared for a period ranging from one month to as much as two years without any information on their whereabouts given,” the report said.

According to the report, Hüseyin Kötüce disappeared for almost two years, while Mesut Geçer disappeared for 16 months, and Gökhan Türkmen and Mustafa Yılmaz disappeared for nine and eight months, respectively. Erkan Irmak, Yasin Ugan, Salim Zeybek and Özgür Kaya disappeared for five months, and Ümit Horzum and Mustafa Özgür Gültekin for four months.

Orçun Şenyücel, Cengiz Usta, Cemil Koçak, Ahmet Ertürk and Önder Asan were disappeared for periods ranging from one to three months.

Hüseyin Galip Küçüközyiğit, a former Turkish bureaucrat who had been missing since December 2020 has recently been found in Ankara’s Sincan Prison, nine-and-a-half months after his disappearance. He has lost a significant amount of weight, according to his daughter Nursena.

“While most of them eventually resurfaced after a number of months or even years, a considerable number of others continue to be missing,” the report says, referring to individuals such as Sunay Elmas, who was abducted in January 2016, Ayhan Oran (abducted in November 2016), Turgut Çapan (abducted in March 2017), Mustafa Özben and Fatih Kılıç (abducted in May 2017), Murat Okumuş (abducted in June 2017), Hıdır Çelik, (abducted in November 2017), Fahri Mert (abducted in August 2018), Hasan Kala (abducted in July 2018) and Yusuf Bilge Tunç (abducted in August 2019).

According to Heymans, when abductees reappear, it is always under the same circumstances.

“In their sudden disappearance, authorities say the disappeared person suddenly appeared and surrendered to them,” he said.

The abductees resurface either in local police stations or at the Anti-Terrorism Department in Ankara, with the authorities providing no explanation or an unconvincing one as to how they ended up there, according to his report. They have been “tortured and ill-treated in order to obtain statements in which they either incriminated themselves or others, often in high-profile cases against the Gülen movement in Turkey,” the report states.

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government launched a war against the Gülen movement, a worldwide civic initiative inspired by the ideas of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, following corruption investigations in late 2013 that implicated the close circle of then-prime minister and current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The war against the movement culminated after an attempted coup in Turkey on July 15, 2016 because Erdoğan and his AKP government accused the movement of masterminding the abortive putsch and initiated a widespread purge aimed at cleansing sympathizers of the movement from within state institutions, dehumanizing its popular figures and putting them in custody.

Turkey lauds operations to abduct citizens abroad

According to the report, while Ankara denies any involvement in the disappearance of Turkish nationals who were abducted within its borders, it openly acknowledges, even brags, about abductions taking place around the world.

“In spite of the fact that our investigation of the publicly known cases only allowed us to identify 63 cases of such abductions, Turkish officials have repeatedly claimed that Turkey was involved in more than 100 international abductions,” the report says.

“For instance, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu confirmed that 104 Gülenists from 21 countries were abducted and brought back to Turkey as part of the Turkish government’s global manhunt. Similarly, Deputy Foreign Minister Yavuz Selim Kıran stated that this happened to more than 100 Gülenists. İsmail Hakkı Pekin, former head of the Turkish Armed Forces Intelligence Department, also confirmed that, unless the followers of the Gülen movement are ‘returned to Turkey by force, they must be exterminated wherever they are, just like ASALA or the MOSSAD did with the former Nazis.’ The presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın furthermore publicly stated that operations abroad against the Gülen movement were being carried out ‘under clear instructions’ from President Erdoğan,” the report notes.

Heymans told Turkish Minute that despite the fact that Turkey is not party to the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC), which looks into cases of crimes against humanity, some of Turkey’s abductions abroad, taking place in state parties to the Rome Statute, could result in a case before the ICC.

“Crimes against humanity stemming from a country that is not a party to the Rome Statute to a country that is could very well make it to the ICC,” Heymans said, giving the example of the crackdown on the Rohingya in Myanmar, many of whom fled to neighboring Bangladesh.

“Myanmar is not a party to the Rome Statute, but Bangladesh is. Some lawyers are now working to lodge an application with the International Criminal Court about the Rohingya,” Heymans said, asserting that this could be the next step with the crackdown on the Gülen movement, with Ankara’s transnational repression campaign spilling over to more than 20 countries, with some of them such as Kosovo party to the Rome Statute.

No protection of right to life of political opponents of Turkish gov’t

The report states that there is no effective protection of the right to life of political opponents of the Turkish government and that no effective investigations are carried out into cases of enforced disappearances.

“A thorough investigation into such complaints is being prevented in every possible way: the authorities refuse to execute essential investigate acts. When crucial evidence is collected and joined to the file by the relatives of the abductees themselves, the authorities choose to ignore it. This is diametrically opposed to Turkey’s positive obligations under international law to investigate such allegations and complaints,” the report says.

Witnesses will testify on enforced disappearances

The panel of judges on Tuesday will hear the testimonies of Mesut Kaçmaz, who was rendered by the Turkish state from Pakistan along with his family; Sezin Uçar, the lawyer for Gökhan Güneş, who was abducted by people identifying themselves as police officers in January of this year; and Mustafa Özben, who was abducted by Turkish intelligence in May 2017.

Apparently intimidated, most of the abductees had kept their silence after their reappearance. Speaking at a court hearing in February 2020, one of the abductees, Gökhan Türkmen, revealed that he had been held incommunicado at a black site in Ankara run by Turkey’s intelligence agency and subjected to severe torture during his 271-day stay. Türkmen was the object of threats and was sexually harassed and abused during his enforced disappearance. He also alleged that he was visited in prison and threatened no less than six times by officials who introduced themselves as intelligence officers, pressuring him to retract his allegations of abduction and torture made at the February hearing.

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