Victims of enforced disappearance testify before Turkey Tribunal

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Bünyamin Tekin, Geneva

Victims of enforced disappearances perpetrated by Turkey testified on their abductions by the state agents on Tuesday before the judges of the Turkey Tribunal, a civil society-led, symbolic international tribunal established to adjudicate recent human rights violations in Turkey.

The judges first heard the testimony of Mustafa Özben, who was abducted by Turkish intelligence in May 2017. Özben’s testimony was the first publicly available testimony by a victim of enforced disappearance carried out by Ankara, live-streamed on the Turkey Tribunal website.

Özben was an academic at Turgut Özal University, which was closed down by a decree-law after a failed coup in July 2016 due to the institution’s alleged ties to the Gülen movement.

Ankara accuses the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, of being behind the abortive putsch and designates the group as a terrorist organization. The movement denies any involvement with the coup or any terrorist activity.

Özben said he was abducted in broad daylight in Ankara. As he approached his car, he was forcibly put into a black transporter van.

“They pulled me out the van and stripped my clothes off,” Özben said.

Saying that he was put in a small cell, Özben stated that it was dark and there was just enough light to enable the camera inside the room operate.

“They were continuously watching,” said Özben, adding that in order not to lose track of time, he invented a way to mark the days by placing objects in the room differently.

Özben said he was certain that his abductors were working for the state as they showed him photos of people taken as if they were under surveillance, shot from a distance, and photos of people taken from CCTV footage all over the city of Ankara. And they also told him so.

“Mustafa, here we are the state. Now the state is being governed in a different manner. If you do as we say, we will send a note to the prosecutor, and you will be set free. We will give you a new identity and a lot of money,” Özben said he was told.

“Or else. We know human anatomy very well. We can make you beg us to kill you,” Özben said he was told by his abductors.

Özben told judges he underwent electric shocks, brutal beatings, continuous insults and threats against his wife and children.

Özben said he was kept there for 92 days and added that before they released him, they stopped the torture to let him recuperate in an effort to hide the marks of torture.

Judge Johan Van Der Westhuizen asked Özben if he would repeat the same testimony under oath or in the presence of a representative of the Turkish state.

Özben said he would repeat the same things and many more he wasn’t able to say due to shortage of time.

Answering a question from the judges about the impact of the torture on his and his family’s life, Özben choked back tears and said the worst thing he underwent was not knowing the fate of his family.

After Özben, Sezin Uçar, the lawyer for Gökhan Güneş, who was abducted in broad daylight in İstanbul in January of this year, testified remotely in a video call.

After he went missing on January 20, Gökhan was released six days later and returned home on his own. He was reportedly left blindfolded in İstanbul’s Başakşehir district, where he worked as an electrician and was abducted.

With bruises on his face and hands, Gökhan made a statement at the İstanbul branch of the Human Rights Association (İHD), describing the torture he was subjected to during the days he was missing.

“They tortured me from time to time. This included electric shocks, beatings and pouring ice-cold water over me. They did this to me either while I was naked or wearing only my underwear. They also threatened me with rape,” he said. He added that his torturers also asked him to cooperate by serving as an informant.

“They asked me whether I knew who they were. When I told them they were probably from [Turkish] intelligence, they remained silent. Sometimes they told me they were ‘the invisibles’,” Gökhan further stated.

Uçar said that Gökhan had previously been kept behind bars before he was acquitted of charges related to anti-war demonstrations and was targeted because of his activisim.

“They tried to make an informant out of him, to learn more about organized activism,” said Uçar.

“During his enforced disappearance, Gökhan was continuously tortured, went through brutal beatings,” Uçar said, adding that he was released due to pressure from civil society organizations and other activists.

Answering Judge Westhuizen’s question about her own safety, Uçar said she was detained and currently faces several court proceedings as is the case with many lawyers in Turkey who are being prosecuted for their professional activities.

Mesut Kaçmaz, a former school principal who was abducted by plainclothes officers who were assumed to be Pakistani law enforcement or intelligence agents in Lahore along with his wife Meral Kaçmaz and children, testified after Uçar.

The four members of the Kaçmaz family, who were under the protection of the UNHCR, were abducted on September 27, 2017, by 15 armed men dressed in civilian clothes. Mr. Kaçmaz, who protested the raid, was beaten by his abductors. They blindfolded and hooded Mr. and Mrs. Kaçmaz along with their two teenage daughters.

The Kaçmaz family was kept in detention for 17 days without being able to contact anyone. They were prevented from going outside and did not see daylight for 17 days.

Mr. Kaçmaz said he and his family had been illegally detained in an unknown place in the city despite a habeas corpus decision by the Lahore High Court. They were was forcibly deported on October 14 2017 and flown on a special, unmarked aircraft from Islamabad to Istanbul.

During the five-hour flight, Mr. Kaçmaz said he was continuously tortured, with abductors threatening him with raping his wife and daughters.

The Kaçmaz couple was transported to Ankara for interrogation after the flight landed in İstanbul, where a court arrested them. They were later released pending trial and fled the country.

Enforced disappearances, which were common in Turkey during the 1990s, made a reappearance following a failed coup in July 2016.

After hearing rapporteur Johan Heymans’ report on enforced disappearances on Monday, the panel of judges heard the testimony of victims on Tuesday.

According to the report heard by the court, at least 25 people have been abducted by Turkish intelligence since 2016 in Turkey and no fewer than 68 have been abducted abroad. Most of the abductions targeted members of the Gülen movement.

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