Taken & Tortured: Turkey increasingly abducts political opponents, says report

A woman looks from a window partly hidden with a giant poster showing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on March 5, 2019 at Istanbul's Kasimpasa district. (File photo: AFP)

Turkish authorities are increasingly abducting opponents of the government, inside and outside of the country, and often torture dissidents after moving them to hidden locations, according to a new report published by the Turkey Tribunal.

Human rights in Turkey have deteriorated since a coup attempt in 2016 failed to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with arbitrary arrests, expulsion from academic and government posts, and reports of disappearances becoming more common.

While Turkey denies state involvement in domestic abductions, “there is extensive objective evidence and testimonies confirming that these abductions and subsequent disappearances are organized” by Turkish National Intelligence officials, said the report by the Turkey Tribunal, a nonprofit organization based in Belgium.

Partly based on an Ankara Bar Association report, the analysis focused on abductions that occurred after the failed coup attempt to overthrow Erdogan’s government on July 15, 2016, as “the tendency to abduct Turkish citizens has been dramatically increasing” since then.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan applauds during a conference in Istanbul on July 28, 2020. (AP)

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan applauds during a conference in Istanbul on July 28, 2020. (AP)

The new report, published this month, listed 25 cases of internal abductions “supported by camera footages, witness statements, investigations of NGOs and other matching sources.”

All those abducted were considered political opponents by the government, with alleged involvement with the religious Gulen movement or the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), both of which Ankara considers terrorist organizations.

Read more: Why is Turkey’s Erdogan persecuting the Gulen movement?

While the PKK is considered a terrorist group by the US as well, the leader of the Gulen movement, Fethullah Gulen, has sought refuge in the US and now lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.

US officials have refused Ankara’s demands to extradite Gulen.

Elaborate kidnappings

The majority of the abductions were part of elaborate kidnapping operations and often occurred in the middle of the day, with the opponent being pushed into a black van in crowded places including in front of shopping malls, according to the report.

Police officers escort people arrested because of suspected links to US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, in Kayseri, Turkey on April 26, 2017. (File photo: AP)

Police officers escort people arrested because of suspected links to US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, in Kayseri, Turkey on April 26, 2017. (File photo: AP)

After being abducted, the opponents “disappear from the radar…their whereabouts are completely unknown for their relatives,” for a time frame ranging from one month to two years.

Most “tend to reappear,” resurfacing in a Turkish prison.

Read more: Turkish magazine calls for founding Islamic caliphate after Hagia Sophia conversion

However 10 of the 25 abductees listed are still missing since their disappearances between 2016 and 2019, including Fatih Kilic, a teacher with suspected Gulen links who was abducted on May 14, 2017 and never resurfaced.

Fethullah Gulen at his home in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania on July 10, 2017. (Reuters)

Fethullah Gulen at his home in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania on July 10, 2017. (Reuters)

Supporters of the religious Gulen movement follow the leadership of 81-year-old Gulen, a Turkish Islamic cleric who was once allied with Erdogan.

Erdogan accuses Gulen of being behind the 2016 failed coup.

External abductions

While abductions inside the country are increasing, Turkey has also ramped up abductions of individuals outside the country.

The Turkish government has admitted publicly to abducting over 100 people outside the country, with the UN confirming this in a letter in July.

In 2018, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkish intelligence had “facilitated the return of more than 100 alleged members from 18 countries,” according to a 2018 US State Department report on human rights in Turkey.

Students in Kosovo protest the arrest and deportation of their teachers, working with a group of schools said to be owned by Gulen, on March 29, 2018. (AP)

Students in Kosovo protest the arrest and deportation of their teachers, working with a group of schools said to be owned by Gulen, on March 29, 2018. (AP)

“Turkey has never denied its involvement” in international abductions, according to the report, which said these abductions typically take place at foreign border crossings when a Turkish citizen finds out their passport has been cancelled by the government.

“These passport cancellations allow Turkey to swiftly identify where and when political opponents are traveling and to launch an international operation,” according to the report.

One example is NBA star and Gulen supporter Enes Kanter, who was detained in a Romanian airport in 2017 after authorities told him his passport was invalid.

Turkey had revoked his passport because of his public criticism of Erdogan. Kanter escaped the fate of abduction, but has refrained from traveling outside the US where he currently resides, due to safety concerns.

 Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter (11) controls the ball against Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (left) on February 4, 2020. (Reuters)

Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter (11) controls the ball against Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (left) on February 4, 2020. (Reuters)

Other Turkish citizens have also been spared abduction due to the intervention of host countries, such as the Swiss secret service foiling a plan by Ankara to abduct a Turkish-Swiss businessman in 2018 due to his alleged activity within the Gulen movement.

‘Ankara resorts to abductions’

The lack of adequate investigation into complaints of abductions “supports the strong involvement of the Turkish State with these crimes,” the Turkey Tribunal report said.

The Turkey Tribunal, established earlier this year, highlights human rights violations through special reports, witness testimony, and verdicts of judges – half of whom have previously served in the European Court of Human Rights.

European Court of Human Rights President Robert Spano, left, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on September 3, 2020. (Courtesy: ECHR)

European Court of Human Rights President Robert Spano, left, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on September 3, 2020. (Courtesy: ECHR)

In July, the United Nations revealed that Turkey signed secret agreements with Azerbaijan, Albania, Cambodia, and Gabon to conduct extraterritorial abductions of alleged dissidents.

The abductees “are often subjected to coercion, torture and degrading treatment aimed at obtaining their consent on voluntary return and at extracting confessions that would inform criminal prosecution upon arrival in Turkey,” the UN said in a letter.

There is a “systematic nature of torture and ill-treatment of detainees in Turkey,” according to former Turkish parliament member Aykan Erdemir.

A Turkish soldier stands guard outside the Silivri Prison and Courthouse complex during the first trial related to Turkey's failed coup, in Istanbul on December 27, 2016. (Reuters)

A Turkish soldier stands guard outside the Silivri Prison and Courthouse complex during the first trial related to Turkey's failed coup, in Istanbul on December 27, 2016. (Reuters)

“Since such severe shortcomings in Turkey’s rule of law and due process preclude legal extraditions, Ankara resorts to abductions as a last resort,” Erdemir, who is now the Senior Director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Al Arabiya English.

Turkey, which denied the UN claims at the time, has not yet responded to the Turkey Tribunal report.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 14 October 2020 KSA 13:46 - GMT 10:46
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