Families, rights groups demand answers about two more vanished Turks

Following the sudden reappearance of four missing men at a Turkish detention site, human rights groups are calling for investigations into the whereabouts of two additional men who vanished in February.

al-monitor A general view of the prison complex in Sincan, outside of Ankara, Turkey, June 20, 2019.  Photo by Rasit Aydogan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
Diego Cupolo

Diego Cupolo


Topics covered

turkey coup, purge, gulenists, human rights in turkey, abduction, disappearance

Aug 14, 2019

The last time Sumeyye Yilmaz saw her husband Mustafa was the night of Feb. 18, 2019. The physiotherapist went to work the next day while she was still asleep and did not return.

After 24 hours without news of his whereabouts, Yilmaz said she went to file a missing persons’ report at her local police station in Ankara. The officers there told her she had been abandoned, that he had run away, and she immediately became suspicious.

Seeking answers, Sumeyye began looking through surveillance camera footage in her neighborhood. First, she found a video of Mustafa in their apartment's elevator the morning of Feb. 19. She also saw exterior footage of him leaving the building and taking his usual commute route.

Then she found camera footage from adjacent buildings showing a man approach Mustafa and begin hitting him. Another man appeared during the melee and put a white bag over his head. Mustafa was then forced into a black Volkswagen Transporter van while a third man took his wallet, cell phone and jacket, which he quickly slipped on, and continued walking along Mustafa’s commute route as the van sped off with her husband inside.

Sumeyye said she took the footage to the police station, but the officer on duty would not accept it, recording only short clips of the videos with his cell phone.

“In those videos, there’s clear evidence of his abduction,” Sumeyye told Al-Monitor. “The black Transporter had taken tours around our house many times before they took him. And after his disappearance, you can see someone who comes to check the neighborhood cameras to see if they were working.”

“Neither the police nor the prosecutors I contacted are taking enough action to find my husband and he was taken from right in front of his home,” Sumeyye added.

Mustafa Yilmaz is one of at least two people that have gone missing in similar circumstances since February. The other is a dismissed civil servant from Antalya, Gokhan Turkmen. Following the sudden reappearance of four additional missing men at a detention site on July 28, human rights groups have amplified calls for investigations into the whereabouts of Yilmaz and Turkmen, who are believed to be held incommunicado in police custody.

Since a 2016 coup attempt, the number of cases involving such disappearances have risen sharply in Turkey, as security officials have cracked down on supporters of Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara accuses of having orchestrated the failed putsch. Such tactics have not been widely used in Turkey since 1990s operations against Kurdish militants, and their resurgence in the post-coup period has alarmed local and international observers.

“The degree of lawlessness in all this is what’s so chilling about it,” Emma Sinclair-Webb, the Turkey program director for Human Rights Watch, told Al-Monitor.

“We’ve seen a rise in reports of torture and detention since the coup. … We’ve also seen a pattern of cases of enforced disappearances, which we first recorded in 2017,” Sinclair-Webb continued. “We can’t say who held these people, we don’t have evidence of which law enforcement unit or security force, but we know that [people] were held over prolonged periods in secret places of detention.”

According to Turkish Interior Ministry Deputy Minister Ismail Catakli, 2,073 people suspected of Gulen links were detained in July. A Reuters report published in May stated more than 77,000 people had been jailed pending trial on terror-related charges since the 2016 coup attempt. Three years after the failed putsch, mass purges, detentions and dismissals continue, instilling fear and redefining the lives of the thousands of Turkish citizens they have impacted.

Mustafa Yilmaz was first detained in Oct. 2018. He was held until a conviction of “membership of an armed terrorist organization” on Jan. 8, 2019, for which he was sentenced to six years and three months' imprisonment. After receiving the verdict, Mustafa was released pending an appeal and returned to work until he went missing in February.

“My husband stayed in prison for three and a half months, but at least we knew where he was,” Sumeyye said, adding she would bring their two-year old daughter to visit. “At least we got to see him.”

Following the recent reappearance of four missing men — Salim Zeybek, Yasin Ugan, Ozgur Kaya and Erkan Irmak — human rights groups have called on security officials to adhere to custody protocols established by Turkish law. Sinclair-Webb said there was no evidence the men, who are also suspected of Gulen links, had access to independent attorneys in the five to six months they had been gone.

Since resurfacing on July 28, the four detainees were allowed brief family visits, during which at least one security official was present, and the men reportedly showed signs of restraint when speaking of their experiences. Sinclair-Webb, who spoke with the detainees’ relatives, said the men told their families they did not want lawyers and that they should stop campaigning on social media, refrain from contacting international organizations and withdraw their legal complaints.

“We’re okay, they told them,” Sinclair-Webb said. “And when the men said this, they were white in the face, their hands were pale, they had lost between 15-20 kilograms in weight. They seemed to not be themselves. Everything they said seemed to be scripted. That’s what the wives felt.”

“We’re not confident that they’re able to speak of their own volition,” she added.

The four men are currently being held at Sincan Prison, in an Ankara suburb, and are expected to have another round of family visits this week, Sinclair-Webb said. The Turkish Ministry of Justice did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Meanwhile, a new case involving the disappearance of dismissed civil servant Yusuf Bilge Tunc is gaining attention on social media. On Aug. 10, Republican People’s Party deputy Sezgin Tanrikulu shared via Twitter that Tunc’s abandoned car had been tracked down as his family continues to seek information on his whereabouts.

News of each disappearance case unnerves Sumeyye to her bones. She said she sold the family car and took loans from relatives to support herself in Mustafa’s absence and is currently looking for a job. She describes the last six months as “hell on earth.”

“When my husband was first detained, I cried a lot, but on the night of July 28, when those disappeared people resurfaced in detention, I cried again because he wasn’t among them,” Sumeyye told Al-Monitor. “I don’t want him to be detained because he is not guilty, but I wanted to find him in detention because that would mean he’s alive, that he’s safe.”

She said that Mustafa’s disappearance has also affected their daughter, who has become agitated, cries often and has lost weight. Sumeyye said she has stopped taking her daughter to city parks, as she becomes upset by the sight of other families.

“When she sees kids playing with their fathers, she becomes sad and she loses her spirit,” Sumeyye said. “She might be two years old, but she feels it, too.”

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