Kidnapped, Escaped, and Survived to Tell the Tale: How Erdogan's Regime Tried to Make Us Disappear

Ever since the coup attempt in Turkey it happens again and again. Now, two victims describe what it's like to be cut off from the world, tortured and pressured to testify against their friends

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Tolga, who was kidnapped in Ankara, in a hotel room in Western Europe.
Tolga, who was kidnapped in Ankara, in a hotel room in Western Europe.Credit: Ivo Mayr/CORRECTIV
Rachel Goldberg
Rachel Goldberg

BERLIN – One morning in the first half of 2017, a black van stopped on a street in the Turkish capital Ankara. Two men in civilian clothes stepped out and pounced on a man walking by. They dragged him into the van and sped off. The whole incident took no more than a few minutes, according to media reports and human rights groups.

The man who was kidnapped tried to fight off his assailants, but they beat him, covered his head with a black hood and cuffed his feet, he said. A year after the incident, he still has a big scar on his leg, a souvenir of the wound he sustained during the kidnapping.

“I quickly realized that there was no point in trying to defend myself, and that I had to calm down and act in a calculated way,” the man, who is using the pseudonym Tolga, told Haaretz and other journalists in a joint investigation by nine international media coordinated by the nonprofit newsroom CORRECTIV.

As the kidnappers’ vehicle approached the facility where Tolga would remain for months, he heard a large iron gate open. He was taken to a closed facility, where he was put in a cell. The door closed and he could hear instructions over a loudspeaker: Every time there was a knock at the door, he would have to turn to the wall and look at the floor so he would not see his captors.

“I saw all my loved ones before my eyes – I thought they were going to kill me,” he said.

Turkish citizens arrested abroad and brought to Turkey, as published by Anadolu Agency

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In the weeks following his abduction, his relatives, along with lawyers and human rights activists, tried to locate Tolga but could find out nothing. His family launched a campaign on social media, and also appealed to the foreign media and the international community – but not a shred of information could be found.

Since the coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016, several disappearances of civilians have been reported; most occurred in Ankara in broad daylight. They all follow a similar pattern: The victims were pulled into a black commercial vehicle, a Volkswagen van, by people who didn’t try to conceal themselves. Subsequent attempts to locate the abducted person failed, and many families reported that the authorities ignored their requests for help.

Testimonies, videos and documents that reached Haaretz and the other journalists raise suspicions that the Turkish government is behind the forced disappearance of Turkish citizens, most of them linked to the movement of the cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania and who the government accuses of orchestrating the attempted coup.

Tolga and another man, Ali (also a pseudonym), related separately and without knowing each other the chain of events. They both said they were held for a long time in facilities they could not identify, and that for their entire captivity they had no access to the outside world. They underwent interrogation and torture designed to make them testify against their friends.

By press time, the Turkish government had not responded to queries about forced disappearances. But Mustafa Yeneroglu, the chairman of the Turkish parliament’s human rights committee, told BBC Turkey in June 2017 that the committee had opened an investigation into the cases that had been referred to it.

Turkish officials, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan among them, have rejected accusations of torture during arrests in Turkey. Officials have called such accusations unfounded and said the government’s policy is “zero tolerance for torture.”

File photo: Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the parliament in Ankara, November 6, 2018.Credit: Burhan Ozbilici/AP

The shock of the night of July 15, 2016, can still be felt in Turkey. That night, a group of army officers tried to take over key installations in Ankara, Istanbul and other cities, with the declared objective of taking power in defense of a democratic and secular Turkey. But forces loyal to the government, helped by many civilians, quelled the coup within 12 hours. In one of the night’s most dramatic moments, Erdogan recorded a cellphone message that was broadcast on TV in which he blamed Gulen for staging the putsch.

After the failed coup, Erdogan launched a campaign against alleged opponents of the regime. At least 150,000 people were fired and thousands of institutions linked to Gulen were closed. Around 160,000 people were arrested, including hundreds of journalists, police commanders, judges and prosecutors, the United Nations said. These people are usually taken to Turkish prisons and other official detention facilities, unlike the cases of Tolga and Ali, who apparently aren’t the only ones to suffer an ordeal.

Haaretz and the other journalists recently met with Tolga in a hotel room in a Western European country, where he has received asylum based on human rights violations that threatened his life. For several hours Tolga described his experiences during and after his arrest. “The cell I was in was 2 meters by one and a half meters,” he said. “The floor was dark and covered in soft cloth, as were the walls, apparently so that inmates couldn’t commit suicide by bashing their heads against them.”

At the beginning, Tolga said, he was interrogated frequently; guards beat him, delivered electric shocks, threatened him with rape and warned him that they would do the same to his family if he did not cooperate. Tolga said the room looked like it had been designed for torture.

“High on the wall were rings for attaching hands to the wall, with lower ones for the feet. There were other torture instruments and clubs,” he said. Tolga’s statements could not be independently verified, but the day after his release he documented his story on videotape, which the researchers watched.

Seeking turncoats against Gulen

Tolga had worked in an institution that is identified with Gulen and was closed down after the coup attempt. He was a member of Gulen’s movement for years, and his interrogators wanted him to supply information related to that. “They showed me photos of people from work; they pointed to them and asked questions,” he said.

Tolga says his captors wanted to recruit him to take part in trials against Gulen’s movement as an anonymous witness, testifying from behind a curtain to conceal his identity. Eren Keskin, a lawyer and human rights activist who was involved in cases accused of taking part in the failed coup, confirmed for researchers that this was common practice.

“They use anonymous witnesses because there is no other evidence,” she said. “This is an undemocratic method that doesn’t exist in law-abiding states.”

CCTV footage of the kidnap of a Turkish citizen in Ankara, according to Stockholm Center for Freedom

Toward the end of his detention, Tolga said, he pretended to collaborate with his captors and the torture abated. “They told me they could send instructions to the courts and all charges against me would be dropped,” he said. “We’ll give you a new identity, money, everything you need – just help the state, that’s all. They always referred to themselves as the state.”

One day he was taken by car back to the center of Ankara and released. He quickly went underground, and when he got a chance, he fled to Europe. “Neither myself nor my family have gotten over the trauma,” he said. “These people use all the state’s power.”

Ali also worked at an institution associated with Gulen, and was abducted in broad daylight in a city in western Turkey. He was missing for a long time. He too says he was kept in a small cell in a large facility he couldn’t identify. Every day he was interrogated and tortured for hours. He says he was forced to stand for hours with his head in a sack, and when he collapsed he was told to stand up.

“They told me I’m a terrorist and accused me of all sorts of things,” he said in his interview. “When the government doesn’t have enemies, they can’t steer the country in the direction they want to.”

Ali said it seemed that the interrogators had many sources of information, and that they had detailed knowledge about his children. After his release, Ali also managed to flee to Western Europe, where he received refugee status.

Concerns about the fate of Turkish citizens who have disappeared drove the director of Human Rights Watch in Europe and Central Asia, Hugh Williamson, to write to Turkey’s justice minister in August. Williamson called for an urgent investigation, saying there was reason to believe that government agents had abducted the missing persons.

In addition, family members have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which in turn asked the Turkish government to clarify whether government agents had taken part in abductions. Also, last year, members of the largest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, called on then-Prime Minister Binali Yildirim to release information on the investigation of 11 civilians thought to have been “disappeared.”

The United Nations defines “forced disappearance” as an instance in which a person’s liberty is denied by agents working for a government that later denies any involvement while refusing to divulge information on the whereabouts or fate of the abducted person.

This isn’t a new phenomenon in Turkey. At the height of the government’s campaign against the Kurds in the 1990s, hundreds of civilians disappeared, according to UN sources. Ozturk Turkdogan, a lawyer who heads Turkey’s Human Rights Association, which represents families of people who have gone missing, told researchers that “apparently this practice is in use again.”

It is of course hard to ascertain how many people have been kidnapped. But the Stockholm Center for Freedom, which was established by journalists who fled Turkey after the coup attempt, says that since 2016, 20 such cases have been reported of academics, teachers and public servants.

Cemil Kocak (right) and Onder Asan, who were reportedly kidnapped in Ankara.

One case sounds similar to Tolga and Ali’s stories. According to Politico, witnesses saw Onder Asan, a former teacher who lived in Ankara, being taken into a black car in April 2017. After 42 days in which nothing was known about his fate, he was located in a regular police facility, Politico said.

According to the Stockholm Center for Freedom, Asan told his attorney that he was interrogated and tortured at an unknown location, with no access to the outer world, and that after his release he was told to give himself up to the police. Various media outlets have also provided testimony by another man, Cemil Kocak, who had been abducted by three men in Ankara.

Turkdogan, the attorney who represents families of the missing, said he had transferred the information he had to a UN committee dealing with forced disappearances, as well as to a committee on human rights in Turkey’s parliament, and to the Turkish state prosecution. He says law enforcement agencies in Turkey were making no progress in investigating these cases.

Abductions abroad

Turkey gives no details on civilians who have disappeared on its territory. It does, however, publish information on Turkish citizens associated with Gulen who have been arrested in other countries and brought back to Turkey by the country’s MIT intelligence service. According to reports in various countries, such operations have taken place in Kosovo, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Gabon and Ukraine.

Such operations are described in the Turkish media as the “return of terrorists.” Erdogan referred to this issue in a speech in Ankara in July to party members: “We’ll return Gulen’s people who fled, thinking they’re safe, one by one,” he declared. “We’ll continue our battle against Gulen supporters who have seriously harmed our country socially, politically and economically, until we completely eradicate them.”

Even though Turkey announced that it was undertaking such operations, it’s unclear how they are carried out. Some details may be gleaned from a widely reported incident that occurred in March in Kosovo.

The plane used for a kidnapping in Kosovo near President Erdogan's plane, Tegel Airport, Berlin, September 27, 2018.Credit: ZDF frontal 21

Early one morning, a jet with the tail marking TC-KLE landed in the capital Pristina. Two hours later it took off with six Turkish citizens, five of them teachers, landing later at an airbase in Ankara. The wife of one of the men said her husband had been abducted by local men who had presented themselves as policemen, after stopping him on the highway in a village near Pristina.

The plane used in Kosovo is owned by the Turkish tourism and construction company Birlesik insaat Turizm Ticaret ve Sanayi. It is registered in Ankara; its address is an apartment building belonging to the Turkish intelligence service, near its headquarters. According to a website that monitors planes, the jet that was used for the alleged abduction was seen in September parked next to Erdogan’s plane while he was visiting Germany. According to the website ADS-B-Exchange, which monitors flights, in early December the plane landed in Venezuela while Erdogan was visiting that country.

Also, in widely reported incident in July, there was a foiled attempt to bring a school principal back from Mongolia to Turkey. He was working in a school associated with Gulen in the capital Ulan Bator. After the man was arrested, his family complained in the media and at the last minute the Mongolian government prevented the plane that had been sent from Turkey from taking off. The jet, photographed by the media, had the tail marking TT-4010. Documents show that the plane is also registered as belonging to the tourist company located in the compound belonging to the Turkish intelligence service.

In the majority of the cases, Turkey is greatly helped by countries where Turkish citizens are arrested. Thus, in September, seven employees of a high school associated with Gulen’s movement were arrested in Chisinau (Kishinev), the capital of Moldova, and flown to Turkey.

According to the Moldovan media, the seven Turkish citizens were picked up by local policemen at home or on the way to the school and flown to an airport near Istanbul. Moldovan authorities said they cooperated with Turkey in arresting the seven men because they “posed a danger to national security.” In this case, the men were flown to Turkey on a plane usually used for chartered flights.

According to senior Turkish officials, Turkey has so far brought back 100 people linked to the Gulen organization, from 18 countries. Amnesty International has complained about these abductions from foreign countries, which are illegal. According to the abductees’ families, after their return to Turkey, many of these men are accused of terrorism and put in regular prisons.

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