Turkey’s Authorities Tight-Lipped Amid Families’ Quest to Find Missing Ones

Abdullah Ayasun
Jul 22 · 10 min read
In early July, Saturday Mothers came together with the families of six men who recently went missing.

The Hearing

For months, families of six people, who mysteriously went missing in February this year, have sought in vain to get, at least, a shred of information from authorities about their possible whereabouts. And for months, judging by the unbridgeable chasm between words and deeds, authorities appear to be dodging their quest, deflecting any responsibility to find them.

Families of Gokhan Turkmen, Yasin Ugan, Ozgur Kaya, Erkan Irmak, Mustafa Yilmaz and Salim Zeybek were disappointed once again last week when lawmakers from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) killed off a parliamentary committee inquiry to enlighten the case of enforced disappearances.

All the men were former public servants, working in different sectors. Between Feb. 6 and 22, they were, according to the account of their families and human rights organizations, abducted by unknown men believed to have ties to Turkey’s security forces.

The monthslong efforts of the families, which recently spurred public awareness and solidarity, devolved into a state of deadlock after government members’ detached response in a parliamentary committee hearing.

The meeting was marked by conflicting accounts, partisan bickering and an unmistakable sense of indifference on the part of the ruling party lawmakers who outright disputed what opposition politicians and human rights organizations called “enforced disappearances.”

“The case of 6 missing people. As our deputy Interior Minister expressed, these people are already on the wanted list, they are being searched. They will be detained and will go through processing once they are captured,” said Hakan Cavusoglu, an AKP lawmaker and head of the Parliamentary Human Rights Investigation Committee, during a parliamentary committee session last week.

“Mr. Chairman, I want to express this. From our angle, there is no issue that requires explanation [and elaboration] left during the briefing of the Commission.” But his description of the issue about the missing people differs from the families’ account available to public and authorities, and with the version of the events documented and presented by opposition lawmakers in the same committee hearing.

Sezgin Tanrikulu, a lawmaker from main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the commission member, offered a detailed account of the disappearances and a damning portrait of the breakdown of rule of law during the emergency rule imposed five days after the failed 2016 coup and ended last year, albeit in an inconclusive fashion.

“The cases of enforced disappearances of the 1990s and emergency rules now take place in downtown Ankara,” Tanrikulu said, conveying a sense alternately wavering between disbelief and utter shock.

“Since the beginning of 2017,” he noted in an attempt to put the issue into a context, “22 citizens have been disappeared.”

“Between February 7 and 22 [this year], six citizens went missing in Ankara, Istanbul and Antalya. They are missing for 150 days.”

Tanrikulu, who belongs to a small squad of lawmakers heroically combatting for restoring the rights of purge victims and other citizens who were wronged during the post-coup crackdown, went on, at great length, to elaborate how the AKP government plunged the country into a judicial morass.

“As someone who lived in OHAL [state of emergency] regime as a lawmaker, I know very well what OHAL is. Over the course of past two years, a state of the emergency regime had been imposed across all parts of Turkey, and this emergency rule turned to something of a hostile criminal law, an enemy criminal law,” he said.

His remarks feel like an insinuation that the government treats its own citizens as if they were enemy. Tanrikulu, who frequently holds Periscope briefings from his perch in Parliament about the plight of purge victims, asserts that the punishment went beyond individuals and became collective in nature and practice, as hundreds of thousands of people have been swept up in the repression sparked by the coup.

His pointed and straightforward depiction of post-coup Turkey reads like a warning against the government. What would bring the downfall of the AKP government, he warned, is the sense of injustice among society.

“Look, hundreds of thousands of people have been fired, even the prospect of employment for their relatives faded away. Thousands of people were unjustly imprisoned. A passport ban was placed for more than 250,000 people. Academics were sacked,” said the lawmaker, in a lucid elaboration of how the sweeping purge shattered central pillars of Turkey’s social fabric and public service.

If it is not unsettling enough, the torture appears as a far more worrisome pattern in police custody and prison. The lawmaker was unsparing in his criticism, exposing the moral flaws of the government regarding its condoning approach regarding the case of torture.

“The torture took the form of administrative practice. From zero tolerance to torture, it became a routine practice in custody and jail. The reports by three different bar associations are a testament to this: Ankara Bar Association, Urfa Bar Association and Van Bar Association,” he said, pointing to recent reports by three Bar associations.

If, as commission president Cavusoglu claimed, there is no torture in Turkey, Tanrikulu asked, why does then the government not allow the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) to release its inspection reports about torture claims in Turkish prisons?

“Since 1991, there have been 38 visits by European delegations to monitor torture allegations in Turkey. After all inspection tours, reports by delegations had been released, conveying their observations and conclusions. But the last three reports are yet to be released, due to a reservation by the Turkish government. When I confronted Deputy Interior Minister about this, he deflected responsibility, shifting the onus to Foreign Ministry and Justice Ministry.”

A lawmaker from the People’s Democracy Party (HDP), Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, the leading champion of purge victims, was equally blunt and dismissive against Cavusoglu’s seemingly erring account.

He led his own inquiry and told the committee hearing that the missing people were indeed kidnapped by security forces. Along with Tanrikulu, Gergerlioglu lamented about the lack of probe into security surveillance system in cities to verify the disappearances. Local residents in Ankara’s Camlik district also confirm the incidents, he stated.

Last week, a European delegation met with families of the six disappeared men. They were briefed on the matter. The EU urges the Turkish government to adequately deal with the issue.


Background

As Turkey sees a new, disturbing trend of enforced disappearances of government critics over the past few years, anguished families of the missing ones have marshaled all their efforts to find out their beloved ones, but they face a wall of obstacles and setbacks in their quest.

Betul Zeybek vividly remembers the moment when a vehicle violently intercepted their car, causing a minor crash in February. When they were trying to get out of the car, the assailants opened fire to the air, scaring her kids and herself. For five months, she tries to pinpoint the location of her husband after the armed men brought her and her children back to Ankara. But that search never yielded a tangible result as authorities made little effort to find them or explain what happened to her husband.

When Salim Zeybek was taken away by gunmen, he stoically urged his family to go on their life as usual. The anguished wife said to her husband in their last phone call that took place with the permission of his kidnappers (security personnel): “How can we continue to normal life? Is there a normal life left?”

The families told Euronews Turkce and other media outlets similar accounts of disappearances. In most cases, police pretend to conduct a search to find the missing ones. But in reality, they do nothing.

Mustafa Yilmaz went also missing this February. Her family did everything to find him, at hospitals, at vacant buildings, in construction sites, parts of which were filled with waters. When Nevin Yilmaz, mother of the missing Yilmaz, conveyed a sense that the police was dragging its foot in the case, she conducted her own search and found out from the camera footage of a store near Yilmaz’s house that her son was abducted by men soon after he left home for work.

What unites these families is the similarity of disappearance stories that conjures up the impression that they were either taken away or abducted by assailants with links to the government security agencies. And the way how prosecutors and the police handle with the missing cases reinforces the suspicion that the disappeared people might have been held at government-linked facilities.


Solidarity and Hope: Saturday Mothers

(Video from Youtube. Source: Euronews Turkce)

As families desperately seek to whip up public support, they found help from a group of veterans. They were experienced about what to do in such moments and they, over the span of decades, honed certain skills and know-how to efficiently advance their agenda in the public, even if it didn’t translate into immediate results.

It was their 745th gathering first Saturday of this July in front of Galatasaray High School in Istanbul’s iconic Istiklal Street. For 745 weeks or longer, Saturday Mothers have had one thing in mind: to get a response from authorities to learn what happened to their beloved ones. Are they dead? Are they alive? If alive, where are they now? Why did they suddenly disappear and never returned home? What did happen to them?

For 745 weeks or longer, there has been no response. With every turn of a new weekend, their hope receded into a combined sense of resignation and despair. But for all the elusiveness of their quest, their resolve never faded, their gatherings never ceased. Aching for an answer for decades, their peaceful sit-in protest area has become simply associated with their sacred cause (until a recent ban imposed by authorities). They sometimes met with anti-riot police’s violent intervention, sometimes encountered indifferent gazes of onlookers or bystanders. They were, as public and media call them, Saturday Mothers. Theirs was a social protest movement inspired by the Argentinian mothers, who searched for their sons and daughters mysteriously disappeared during the military regime between 1976 and 1982. Their struggle set a precedent and example for others around the world to follow.

In early July, Saturday Mothers were in Istanbul’s Istiklal Street again with a renewed gusto. They were not alone this time. What agonized them for years (or decades) now recently keep several people in its punishing grip: enforced disappearances — a social endemic that characterized the dark chapters of the long 1990s. Families of six recently disappeared men joined Saturday Mothers in a joint effort to make their voices heard by the public and world, if not unperturbed authorities. Lawmaker Tanrikulu was also present at the event.

The display of solidarity uplifted spirits and rekindled hopes of the people about the quest of families.

The unity message resonated across different social segments in a country where recurring cycles of repression and crackdown target a certain part of society in a particular political context. Victims change, governments come and go, but the nature of tragedy remains the same. Today’s black transporters replaced the white Toros of the 1990s, methods and the usual official response remained sickeningly unaltered.

Besna Tosun whose father went missing 23 years ago joined the latest event. In a memorable line, she scribbled down her feelings on Twitter:

“We are in the same street where we embarked upon to find out my father 23 years ago. Now in my lap, there is a little girl who waits for her father for 136 days. Whatever I say would be insufficient.”

During the 1990s, the majority of the missing ones were from southeastern Turkey where security forces were locked in a bloody battle with the outlawed Kurdish militants. The pressure to contain the security threat from the militants created grey areas where security forces repeatedly transgressed the realm of the law, and faced credible accusations of illegal schemes such as extrajudicial killings and disappearances of civilians.

On other occasions, left-leaning people became targets of similar methods.

This July gathering was of vital importance for the fact that it transcended social and ideological cleavages. People, regardless of any social affiliation, coalesced around a joint cause.

The picture of Betul Zeybek (C), the missing Salim Zeybek’s wife, and Ikbal Eren, (R) the older sister of Hayrettin Eren, was particularly striking. They were united in their tragedy as well as in their will to stand together no matter how deep their agony was and no matter how different their backgrounds were.

Eren was holding the picture of her brother Hayrettin Eren who went missing after police stopped his car in Istanbul on Nov. 21, in 1980. The incident took place two months after a military coup designed to halt political violence, which consumed more than 5,000 lives across Turkey in the late 1970s. Since then, the Eren family has not got a word from Hayrettin. The authorities reject any responsibility for his disappearance.

Betul’s husband was taken away by gunmen in front of her own eyes and her children five months ago. She is still waiting for good news.

She and others need not go the long path the previous victims went. Turkey’s authorities owe an explanation to its citizens, no less an apology and legal remedy. The worst thing that could be wrought upon the suffering families is to keep them in the dark, deprive them of the right to know whether their loved ones are alive or not, and bury them in a perpetual state of limbo, psychologically, mentally and emotionally. This is as cruel and devastating as death itself.

Abdullah Ayasun

Written by

Washington-based journalist. Featured and quoted in The Huffington Post, The Globe Post, The Washington Post, Guardian, BBC and elsewhere. Twitter: @abyasun

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