The Human Rights Watch (HRW) expressed its concerns on Tuesday that the Turkish government may be concealing information about the enforced disappearance of six people in February, four of which were recently confirmed to be in police custody in Ankara.
Four of the six men, who were abducted on various dates in February, Ozgur Kaya, Erkan Irmak, Yasin Ugan and Salim Zeybek, have been in custody of Ankara’s counterterrorism police since July 28.
The other two abductees, Gokhan Turkmen and Mustafa Yilmaz, who went missing in the capital around the same time, have not yet been found.
Turkish authorities suspect that the six men have links to the faith-based movement of the US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, which is regarded by the Turkish government as a terrorist organization responsible for the July 15, 2016 coup attempt.
However, coup-related allegations and involvement in terror activity are strongly denied by Gulen and his followers.
Since the coup attempt, Turkey’s ruling AK Party (AKP) government has carried out an unprecedented crackdown on the movement and its followers, detaining and arresting nearly 80,000 people and prosecuting more than 511,000.
Although it has been acknowledged by the authorities that they are holding the four men, they have not yet revealed where the detainees have been for the last five months, implying that they were not in the custody of the state nor their proxies.
The Ankara Bar Association stated last week that the men have been denied access to lawyers since they were found by the police.
The Turkish authority’s decision not to allow the men access to their lawyers has raised HRW’s suspicion that the men may be under pressure to conceal information about the circumstances around their disappearance.
“Lawyers have been prevented from meeting the men, in violation of Turkey’s laws, which fuels our suspicion that the authorities want to hide the truth about what these four have lived through for the past five-and-a-half months,” Tom Porteous, deputy program director at HRW said.
He added: “There needs to be a full account of what has happened to these men since February, and everyone implicated in their presumed enforced disappearances should be held to account.”
Noting that Turkey has “a heinous history of forcible disappearances of people in the 1990s, as attested in multiple ECHR judgments,” Porteous urged Turkish authorities to immediately investigate whether Yilmaz and Turkmen are also being held in undisclosed detention sites.
The family members of the detainees, who have been allowed to see them briefly twice in the presence of police officers, told Turkish media that they were reluctant to provide answers to questions about their whereabouts since February.
They also stated that the police officers who were present during the visit intervened to stop further questions regarding the issue.
HRW said that the Turkish authorities are legally obliged to grant the families’ chosen lawyers access to the men and permit independent medical professionals to conduct full medical examinations of them.
Citing the men’s wives, who have been campaigning and filing complaints to find information on their husbands’ whereabouts for months, HRW said that they were very pale, had lost a lot of weight, and were unwilling to answer any questions about their disappearance.
The wives further told HRW that each of the men said, with police officers present, that they did not want to see a lawyer and that the wives should stop campaigning or lodging complaints about their cases.
Police presence during the meetings and the men’s introverted manner of speaking, as well as their inability or fear to provide any information about the past five months, adds to the concern that they are being pressured to withhold information about their treatment, HRW argued.
Although families made great efforts to ensure a proper investigation into the forced disappearances in each case, the prosecutors in charge of the cases dismissed their complaints and have failed to carry out effective research.
The families have also applied to Turkey’s Constitutional court (AYM), the rulings of which are binding for all subordinate courts across the country, the United Nations (UN) Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, and to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
Even though the cases of the six presumed to be forcibly disappeared men were raised many times in the Turkish parliament, and numerous human rights associations have publicly reported on them, the authorities have made no official statement about the men or their whereabouts since February.
A non-profit investigative newsroom based in Europe, Correctiv, alleged in a report in December 2018 that the abductees were held by Turkey’s intelligence service (MIT) in a secret detention facility in Ankara, called “the Ranch,” where state agents torture and interrogate them.