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Torture on the rise in Erdogan’s Turkey

Reports of human rights atrocities in Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Turkey are growing, with victims speaking out on forced disappearances and murder.

Erhan Dogan, a 39-year-old Kurdish schoolteacher from Turkey’s eastern province of Elazig, says he first experienced torture on the night of July 26, 2016. It began following his arrest by Turkish police in Ankara on terrorism charges.

Dogan says he was repeatedly beaten and kicked in the ribs and on the head, his hands cuffed behind him. He was suspended by a rope attached to his wrists for two hours at a time. He was blindfolded and threatened with rape as his tormentors ran their clubs over his buttocks and groin. A bucket of ice-cold water was poured over his head, then it would start all over again. When interrogators threatened to rape his wife and daughter “if you don’t give us names,” Dogan says he knew they were serious, because he had seen three young women being hauled off at the makeshift detention center and heard their anguished screams.

“That’s when I decided to kill myself; it was the fifth day,” Dogan recalled. “I was going to knot my T-shirt into a noose from a pipe over the toilet, but my faith intervened.” On the ninth day, he was told he was being transferred to Ankara’s Sincan Prison. “I felt rewarded; I was overjoyed," he said.

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power 18 years ago pledging “zero tolerance” for torture. For a while, it seemed sincere. AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan was determined to end the military’s grip over politics for he knew how much the men in uniform hated him and his fellow Islamists. Ending army tutelage was one of the top conditions laid down by the European Union to launch full membership talks with Turkey.

The AKP swiftly embarked on a raft of dizzying reforms that were meant to propel the country onto the path of full democracy. Generals no longer got to bark orders through the national security council. Pressure on the country’s brutally repressed Kurds eased. Husbands accused of raping their wives were now deemed criminals. They were also shorn of their status as the “head of the family” under a revamped civil code crafted by AKP lawmakers as women activists breathed down their necks — literally. The presence of a lawyer during pretrial interrogation of detainees, when forced confessions under torture would typically occur, became mandatory. 

In 2005, the EU formally opened full membership talks with Turkey.

For a brief time, there was “real hope,” said Sebnem Korur Fincanci, a forensics doctor and president of Turkey’s Human Rights Foundation, which treats victims of torture. Such hopes now lie in tatters, and torture is back “in its cruelest forms,” Fincanci told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview. The gutting of independent media and the ongoing jailing of critical journalists — there were more than 80 behind bars at the last count — means that with the exception of a handful of oppositional online news sites, the abuses go unreported.

The New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch said in a July 29 report it had credible evidence that Turkish police and a swelling force of “night watchmen” with expanded powers had committed serious abuses over the past two months against at least 14 people in Istanbul and the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in the southeast. “In all cases, the authorities have claimed — without evidence — that those alleging police ill-treatment violently resisted arrest and the police,” the report said.

So sorry, so sad

Seyhmus Yilmaz, a 35-year-old worker from Diyarbakir, and his wife, Menice, were among the victims. Police smashed into his flat in the low-income Baglar district without warning at midnight on May 31. “There were about 20 policemen and three German shepherd dogs,” Yilmaz told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview from Diyarbakir. “They first went after my wife, who fled with our three children into one of their rooms, and unleashed one of the dogs on her. I was sleeping and awoke with the commotion. No sooner did I step into the living room, the police set upon me kicking me and hitting me with their rifle butts while the dogs began to bite me all over. ‘This is him, hold him, kill him,’ they shouted,” Yilmaz said.

They were looking for another man accused of murdering a policeman. Muhammed Emir Cura was caught later that day. According to Human Rights Watch, police stripped Cura naked, thrashed him with their batons and pummeled him with their fists. He was threatened with rape and choked till he passed out on the floor of the local police station, his lawyers say. Photos depicting the scene were posted on social media.

It took Yilmaz’s attackers five minutes of unfettered violence to finally grasp that he was telling the truth about his own identity.

Wounds on Seyhmus Yilmaz's arm, taken on May 31, 2020. (Courtesy of the Yilmaz family)

A new batch of policemen arrived soon after to apologize for their mistake. The urged him not to file a criminal complaint and promised to replace the broken door. Yilmaz did file a complaint together with a medical report listing his injuries. The Diyarbakir governor’s office responded in a June 3 statement saying that Yilmaz was to blame for the affair. He had “resisted the police” and “kicked” their dog. The authorities never fixed his door.

“Torture and ill-treatment, and police violence more generally, is becoming pervasive with a rise in reports. There’s always been entrenched impunity and denial, but now the authorities issue denials that close down the avenues to investigating abuses,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director for Human Rights Watch. “The dogs are new, and it's particularly awful they are used to bite and terrorize people. There are no bombs, no narcotics in the two cases that we looked at, so why the dogs?” she added in a telephone interview. 

In a further ominous turn, the culture of impunity has spread beyond Turkey’s borders to northern Syria, where Turkish forces occupy broad swaths of territory. Reports of ill-treatment, sexual abuse and extrajudicial killings carried out by Turkish-supervised Syrian rebels have been described as “war crimes” by the United Nations. At the same time, Turkish forces have been abducting and jailing Syrians accused of terrorist ties with little evidence to support the charges, a flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention, rights groups say.

Interior Ministry and Justice Ministry officials did not respond to Al-Monitor written requests for comment about the allegations of torture detailed in the Human Rights Watch report.

Fincanci says she has no interlocutors left in the government. With right-wing populists hostile to Muslims and immigrants on the rise in EU nations, “few care about what’s happening in Turkey” and “the government no longer cares what the EU says,” leaving rights groups feeling ever more vulnerable. “Could they shut us down? Yes, they could,” Fincanci said.

In its most recent annual progress report that came out in May 2019 on the status Turkey’s membership bid, the EU noted that “Allegations of torture and ill treatment remain a serious concern. The repeated extensions of the state of emergency led to profound human rights violations, and the Government failed to take steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish members of the security forces and other officials accused of human rights abuses.” The report continued, "The removal of crucial safeguards by means of emergency decrees has increased impunity for perpetrators of such crimes, and has led to allegations of an increase in the number of cases of torture and ill-treatment in custody.” 

The abuses began spiking across the country in the immediate aftermath of the July 15, 2016, attempt to violently topple Erdogan. The government says that Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based leader of a sprawling Sunni Muslim global network of schools and businesses, masterminded the putsch. The pair were allies with thousands of Gulen sympathizers installed in positions of influence until their partnership blew up in 2013 over the direction and the spoils of power. Gulen denies any involvement in the affair. But tens of thousands of his disciples in the military, the bureaucracy, academia, the media and the business world have been purged and jailed for their alleged links to the imam under the cover of a state of emergency that wasn’t lifted until July 2018. Fifty-thousand were expelled from the armed forces alone.

“Ever since the coup attempt, we’ve had the government examine the cases we document and respond by telling us the victims are criminals or under investigation as ‘terrorists.’ They skip over the torture allegation and end up with denial. It suggests they are condoning this,” Sinclair-Webb said.

Kurdish "bastard"

Dogan, the school teacher, was among the first to be rounded up and taken to the recreation hall at the security directorate headquarters in Ankara where hundreds of military officers were interned when the coup collapsed. He says dried blood caked the walls. There were roughly 1,000 men of different ages “wearing Guantanamo-style orange clothes.” The women were held in a different section. “We were forced to remain upright on our knees for hours on end. Whenever anyone keeled over from fatigue, they were beaten. We were forbidden to speak, and those who did were beaten as well. Every so often a guard would call out people’s names to take them to a block of cells where the torture took place. It was the moment we all dreaded,” Dogan told Al-Monitor in a three-hour-long interview.

He was summoned five times. They called him “the Kurdish bastard," he said.

The torture began at 11 p.m., lasted till around 5 a.m. and was carried out by bearded men in civilian clothes mouthing Islamist and racist slogans. The demands were always the same: provide names of leading Gulenist figures, confess that he had selected his wife from “a catalog of Gulenist brides” and admit that he was a member of what authorities refer to as the Fethullah Terrorist Organization. “The Kurd in me” refused to cave, Dogan said.

After each session, Dogan says he would be dragged to an office where a medical doctor would rubber stamp reports saying the detainees were in good physical condition without bothering to examine them. “The doctor must have been in her late 20s. She had long, dark hair and wore a white coat. She would stare fixedly at a form on her desk. I would stand in the doorway without actually entering the room. When she asked me ‘Are you ok?’ I was finally unable to contain myself and responded ‘Can’t you see that I am not?’ I was soaked in blood. I could barely walk. For the first time, she raised her head and looked at me. The guard who escorted me was furious. He said ‘Wait a second’ and took me away for a further bashing. When we returned, he told the doctor, ‘Look, he’s fine.’ She signed the form.”

Erhan Dogan and his family after they were reunited in Europe on May 21, 2020. (Courtesy of Erhan Dogan)

Prosecutors failed to prove that Dogan, who taught in a Gulen-run school that was shuttered along with hundreds of others in 2013, took part in the plot. After serving 16 months, Dogan was sentenced to seven years and six months for membership in the Fethullah Terrorist Organization and freed on parole.

He fled Turkey in August 2018 with the help of smugglers, crossing the Evros River on a rubber boat to Greece. He was recently granted asylum in a northern European country, and his wife and three children have joined him there. His 16-year-old daughter still suffers from psychological problems, compulsively pulling out her eyelashes and her eyebrows. Shunned by even his closest relatives, Dogan says he will “never go back” to Turkey again.

Dogan’s story appeared to be corroborated by the allegations in the court testimony that surfaced last week of a first lieutenant from the Special Operations Forces that was published by Bold Medya. The online news site, which is banned in Turkey, was set up by exiled journalists who used to work for pro-Gulenist outlets.

Musa Kilicaslan, who was decorated by Erdogan for his fight against Kurdish rebels, told the court of his ordeal at the same recreation center following his arrest in the wake of the botched coup. He said the center’s floors were covered in blood and urine, and prisoners were forced to sit in it. The torture he endured broke his ribs and impaired his mobility, but he witnessed worse.

He said a female officer wearing pajamas was beaten over and over before his eyes at the security directorate’s infirmary. “She was curled up on the bed in 'a ball of shame.' They started to undress her. They said they would take her to the basement and gang-rape her. They did this to an officer of the armed forces,” Kilicaslan claimed. It later emerged that the woman had not stepped out of her home on the night of the coup, Kilicaslan said, which might explain why she was wearing pajamas at the time of her arrest. He says she was set free.

Kilicaslan remains in an Ankara jail. In June, he was sentenced to lifetime imprisonment without parole along with 85 other defendants after being convicted of taking part in the coup attempt at the gendarmerie headquarters in Ankara, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported.

The Turkish government denies the allegations of torture. An interior ministry spokesman did not respond to Al-Monitor's request for comment.

Cevheri Guven is an investigative journalist who was twice imprisoned for his reporting for Gulen-friendly outlets. He fled with his family to Germany after the coup and has since been collecting the stories of people who were tortured in its aftermath. He publishes them in raw form in Bold Medya. Bold broke Dogan’s story with a video in which he relayed his hellish experiences, his voice frequently breaking. Dogan’s description of the recreation center matched those he had heard from three other men held there, Guven told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview.

Rights defenders say it’s understandable that authorities would want to bring the coup plotters to justice. Over 200 people died that night. More than 2,000 were injured. The putschists rained bombs on the parliament. Men known to have close relations with Gulen were seen at the Akinci airbase in Ankara where the plotters were headquartered and other critical points in the city on the night the takeover was launched.  

But the allegations of torture overshadow the government’s case against them. 

Erdal Dogan, an Istanbul-based rights lawyer, said the government and the parliament ought to have investigated the torture claims echoing Kilicaslan and Dogan’s version of events as documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Contemporary Jurists’ Association in the immediate wake of the failed coup. “They never did. It was a missed opportunity,” Dogan told Al-Monitor.

"Touch them, you burn"

Guven and his colleagues’ searing scoops — Kilicaslan's alleged court testimony, a transcript of which was seen by Al-Monitor, was one of them — are rarely picked up by Turkey’s oppositional media let alone by pro-Erdogan mouthpieces. There’s always been antipathy toward the Gulenists among leftists and secular liberals. Likeminded journalists were at the butt end of Gulenist orchestrated disinformation campaigns to discredit critical reporting of their actions at the heyday of their power between 2003 and 2011. Several were jailed on trumped-up charges. “Touch them, you burn,” shouted journalist Ahmet Sik, as he was carted off to prison in 2011.

There was no doubt who Sik had "touched" and why he was “burned." He’d written a book called "The Imam's Army" about Gulen’s apparent drive to control the levers of power.

Scrutiny of the group began in earnest when it became clear that Gulenist prosecutors and their allies were manipulating and outright fabricating evidence against hundreds of military officers who were wrongfully jailed and tried for the very same charge tens of thousands of Gulenists now face themselves: alleged coup plotting.

Firdevs Robinson, a London-based expert on Turkey, the Caucasus and Central Asia who does advocacy work in support of free expression, said, “Selective empathy and outrage have always been a pervasive problem in Turkey. Human rights and freedom of speech advocacy come at a high cost these days. Many of us feel the necessity to focus our energies where our strongest grievances lie.”

“The lies and machinations of the Gulen movement in the past and their failure to be accountable today discourage even the most principled from defending them publicly. Yet, just as we cannot pick and choose among rights, we cannot be selective in their implementation either,” Robinson told Al-Monitor in emailed comments.

Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, a lawmaker for the Kurd-friendly Peoples’ Democratic Party and a member of the parliament’s human rights commission, is a rare public figure who has made it his life’s mission to seek justice for all victims of miscarried justice, be they Gulenists, Kurds or gays. His pet causes are the more than 800 newly born babies jailed with their mothers and the disappeared.

Since January 2016, at least 28 individuals — all but one of them male — are thought to have been forcibly disappeared by alleged members of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) and held at black sites in Ankara, Gergerlioglu said. Human Rights Watch reported some of the cases in an April report. The Ankara Bar Association and the Human Rights Association also reported on the cases.

Two of the men remain unaccounted for.

"Death foretold"?

A third, Yusuf Bilge Tunc, a former employee of the government’s defense industry secretariat who was sacked in the post-coup cull, went missing in Ankara on Aug. 6 last year. His disappearance is believed to be connected to the other cases, though this remains unconfirmed.

It took the authorities more than three months to agree to his wife’s pleas to launch an investigation, Gergerlioglu said. Fears for Tunc’s life are growing by the day. His father is on antidepressants. His three children, aged 10, seven and three, believe he is in a place “where there is no cell phone reception.”

Mustafa Tunc, the father of Yusuf Bilge Tunc who went missing on Aug. 6, 2019, speaks during an interview with AFP on Aug. 27, 2019 about the disappearance of his son in Ankara. (AFP via Getty Images)

The men are accused of running and recruiting MIT agents on behalf of Gulen. It’s unclear why they were disappeared rather than formally arrested. “All of these men are being used against each other. There’s an internal settling of scores. MIT people are in all walks of life, and MIT is being particularly vicious to its own,” speculated a rights defender, who asked not to be identified by name.

Either way, such is MIT’s apparent sense of impunity, it's doing little to cover its tracks. “In the old days when people were disappeared, the government would make an effort to do it secretly. Now they do everything in broad daylight,” Gergerlioglu noted in a telephone interview.

He was referring in particular to the case of two men, Yasin Ugan and Ozgur Kaya, who vanished on Feb. 13 last year from an apartment in Ankara’s Altindag neighborhood where they had been hiding to evade arrest.

Gergerlioglu rushed to the scene after being contacted by the missing men’s loved ones. He interviewed neighbors who all repeated the same story. Around 50 people — some of them uniformed, others not — had laid siege to the building, ransacked the pair’s apartment then marched them off with black hoods over their head in the middle of the day. Security cameras in the area were ripped out. Ugan and Kaya were not seen in the neighborhood again.

Gergerlioglu said his demands for information about their whereabouts were left unanswered by the justice and interior ministries. The parliament’s human rights commission, chaired by an AKP deputy, spurned his request to launch an investigation. As a "last resort,” he invited the deputy interior minister to brief the commission. “It was June. He agreed to come. When asked about the missing men, he responded with a guffaw and said, ‘Oh we are looking for them too. If you find them, kindly let us know.’ I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry,” Gergerlioglu said.

On July 28, the Ankara security directorate announced that Ugan and Kaya had been picked up together with two other men, who had gone missing in Istanbul and the western town of Edirne, respectively, “as they were walking together” in Ankara. “We were expected to swallow this lie,” Gergerlioglu said. Their wives could barely recognize them. They had lost massive amounts of weight and their skin was ghostly pale.

Many others who disappeared surfaced after long months and in similarly nebulous circumstances bearing traces of ill-treatment.

Fincanci contended one reason why cases involving alleged Gulenists have received so little attention is that unlike other persecuted groups, notably Kurds, victims and their families “choose not to speak out.” She said the Human Rights Foundation had repeatedly offered to help “but they do not respond."

The few who dare to speak up are swiftly punished. Melek Cetinkaya, whose son Furkan is among some 355 cadets handed life sentences for their supposed involvement in the coup, has been staging solo protests for the past four years. She’s been detained over 30 times for demanding justice for Furkan, who was only 19 at the time of his arrest. Cetinkaya insists he has nothing to do with Gulen. She was re-arrested earlier this month on charges of spreading terrorist propaganda after appearing on the pro-government AKIT TV. Her crime was having resisted calling Gulen and his flock “terrorists” during the interview.

In February, one of the disappeared men, Gokhan Turkmen, broke his silence during his courtroom hearing and revealed how MIT agents had kept pressuring him after his formal arrest to not reveal the truth about the horrible abuse he was subjected to during the 271 days he was held incommunicado. In June, Ugan followed suit during his court hearing. He said he’d faced similar coercion by MIT agents who visited him in jail and was forced into signing a false confession that he was among Gulen’s “MIT imams.” Ugan denies the charges.

Ugan’s lawyer, Anil Arman Akkus, said his client had been subjected to a “cocktail” of torture methods during his confinement at a suspected black site in Ankara. “Some I had never heard of before, like being backed into a dog kennel blindfolded and handcuffed and made to crouch in it for hours,” Akkus told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview. “It’s a whole new level,” he concluded.

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