HRW calls on Turkey to investigate disappearance of Gökhan Türkmen

Human Rights Watch has called on the government of Turkey to investigate the circumstances surrounding the abduction of a Turkish man who turned up in a police station a year later.

Turkish authorities should urgently carry out an effective investigation into credible testimony from a man in pretrial detention that state agents forcibly disappeared him for nine months and tortured him,” Human Rights Watch said on April 29.

Gökhan Türkmen disappeared in his hometown of Antalya on February 7, 2019. His family sought information from various state authorities on his whereabouts in vain. After nine months of absence he suddenly reappeared in police custody in Ankara. In his court hearing on February 10, 2020 Türkmen claimed that he had been abducted by the Turkish secret service, held incommunicado in detention and tortured. He also alleged that he was visited and threatened no less than six times in prison by people who introduced themselves as intelligence officers.

“Flagrantly flouting its legal obligations, Turkey has consistently failed to investigate credible evidence of enforced disappearances,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should urgently investigate Türkmen’s allegations that he was abducted, tortured, and pressured to remain silent, and ensure that he and his family are protected against reprisals for speaking out.”

HRW shared the following on the case of Gökhan Türkmen:

Turkish authorities should urgently carry out an effective investigation into credible testimony from a man in pretrial detention that state agents forcibly disappeared him for nine months and tortured him.

The man, Gökhan Türkmen, is one of at least two dozen people over the past three years whose families, or in a few cases the individuals themselves, have said they have been abducted and forcibly disappeared by government agents for many months. All but one are men. Human Rights Watch has examined 16 such cases since 2017. Turkish authorities have yet to effectively investigate any of them, and a number of families have applied to the European Court of Human Rights for justice. The whereabouts and fate of one man remains unknown.

Türkmen, 43, spoke for the first time during a February 10, 2020 court hearing about his abduction, enforced disappearance, and torture. He also said that officials had visited him in prison and threatened him and his family. The authorities have an obligation to pursue a prompt and thorough investigation into these claims and to ensure that Türkmen and his family are not subjected to further reprisals and threats for speaking out about his enforced disappearance and torture.

Türkmen disappeared in Antalya on February 7, 2019. His family repeatedly sought information from various authorities about his whereabouts and when met with silence, appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. Türkmen resurfaced in police custody on November 6. An Ankara court sent him to pretrial detention, and he remains in solitary confinement in Ankara’s Sincan F-type Prison No. 1. He is facing charges of espionage and links to the Fethullah Gülen movement, which the Turkish government blames for the July 2016 coup attempt.

Türkmen’s lawyer has also filed complaints that men who introduced themselves as National Intelligence Agency (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı, MİT) officers have visited him in prison six times since November 15 and threatened him and his family. During a March 2020 visit, the men pressured him to retract his allegations about abduction and torture at the February court hearing. On April 16, the Ankara prosecutor issued three decisions saying there was no need to investigate the complaints. Türkmen’s lawyer is appealing. His wife told Human Rights Watch that she had faced intimidation from unknown sources who hacked the Twitter account she had set up in her husband’s name to campaign about his whereabouts when he disappeared, and set up a second one also in his name.

Four other men who were forcibly disappeared in February 2019 and resurfaced in police custody in July have remained silent on the full circumstances, although their families lodged multiple complaints with the Turkish authorities and to the European Court of Human Rights. The four – Salim Zeybek, Özgür Kaya, Yasin Ugan and Erkan Irmak – are in pretrial detention in Sincan prison facing prosecution for links with the Gülen movement and espionage.

A fifth man, Mustafa Yılmaz, abducted in February 2019, resurfaced in police custody in October, and is also in pretrial detention in Sincan prison. He too has avoided answering his family’s questions about his abduction and disappearance for eight months and is on trial for links with the Gülen movement and espionage. Another man, Yusuf Bilge Tunç, disappeared in Ankara on August 6, 2019 and his whereabouts remain unknown despite his family’s repeated pleas to the Turkish authorities for information.

The Ankara Bar Association Human Rights Center issued a report on the enforced disappearance of all seven men on February 13, 2020 and filed a formal complaint with the Ankara prosecutor.

Human Rights Watch has received information from lawyers about two other cases of alleged enforced disappearances. One man, Mesut Geçer, said he was forcibly disappeared in March 2017, and was held for 16 months and repeatedly tortured before being transferred to police custody. Ayten Öztürk has said that in March 2018 she was forcibly disappeared and tortured for over five months before being officially registered in police custody. Both are in pretrial detention. There has been no effective investigation into the circumstances of either’s detention and allegations of forcible disappearance and torture.

Human Rights Watch has received unconfirmed reports that intelligence agents from Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency carried out the enforced disappearances and that the men, though not Öztürk, may either have worked directly for the intelligence services or been in contact with intelligence officers through Gülen movement networks. Human Rights Watch can neither lend credibility to nor discredit these claims as such a line of enquiry is outside the scope of the organization’s work.

An enforced disappearance occurs when state agents, or people or groups acting with government authorization, support, or acquiescence, deprive a person of liberty and then refuse to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or conceal the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person.

Enforced disappearances are serious crimes under international law and are prohibited at all times. The prohibition not only requires preventing them but entails a duty to investigate allegations of enforced disappearance and prosecute those responsible. Enforced disappearances may also constitute and be prosecuted as a crime against humanity if they form part of a state sponsored policy or practice or are part of a broader attack against civilians by state authorities.

“Enforced disappearances are an egregious crime, and their persistent occurrence in Turkey will only end if the authorities effectively investigate these incidents and bring those responsible to justice,” Williamson said. “Yusuf Bilge Tunç has been missing for eight months and Turkey has an urgent obligation to determine his whereabouts and provide information to his family.”

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