Enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions of opposition continue

Human rights violations are a persistent feature of Ankara’s treatment of political opposition since the failed coup attempt in July of 2016. The government labelled the Gülenist movement it blames for the putsch a terrorist organisation, and has gone to great lengths to crackdown on its members both domestically and in foreign jurisdictions.

The Turkish administration’s shift to embrace abductions, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions is a significant regression under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s leadership. Prior to the coup attempt, then Prime Minister Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) became popular, in part, by reducing the human rights abuses that previous Turkish administrations routinely employed to target political opponents.

A new report by Johan Heymans for Turkey Tribunal identifies 25 cases of internal abductions, and 63 cases of extraterritorial abductions organised by the Turkish government, which denies any involvement, since 2016. Regarding the latter category, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has confirmed that over 100 Gülenists have been forcibly returned to Turkey.

Turkey has a crucial legal obligation to respect the right to liberty of its citizens, Heymans, a lawyer at the Belgium-based Van Steenbrugge Advocaten that founded the Turkey Tribunal, told Ahval.

“This obligation is enshrined in both the most important international (European Convention on Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) and domestic legal instruments (Turkish constitution). By arbitrarily abducting its political opponents, Turkey violates this obligation,” he said.

Moreover, the country also has a major legal obligation to investigate allegations of abductions. “Turkey, on the contrary, refuses to conduct any investigation. If useful proofs are gathered this is due to the efforts of the family members of the abductees,” Heymans said.

In parallel to extrajudicial abductions, the Turkish Interior Ministry routinely uses its power to investigate, dismiss, and replace elected officials over suspicion of ties to Gülenists or to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a decades long insurgency against the state.

In the state of emergency following the failed coup, Erdoğan’s AKP-led government amended the Municipalities Law to allow the dismissal of local officials on suspicion of terrorism, as well as their pretrial detention while investigations are carried out. Previously, conviction of a crime was required to remove an elected official.

The law is now widely abused to arbitrarily dismiss and detain political opponents of Erdoğan’s governing coalition. Some individuals may be arrested on valid charges, however, a lack of evidence in the vast majority of terrorism cases highlights the abuse of the law.

The Interior Ministry has reportedly investigated 563 out of a total of 1,875 governors, leading to the firing of 470 elected officials, including 43 district and deputy governors on Sept. 8, primarily on suspicion of Gülenist connections. A further 82 people were detained on Sept. 25, including former parliamentary deputies, mayors and ex-party leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Perhaps even more concerning are the human rights violations examined in Heymans’ report for Turkey Tribunal. Individuals targeted as Gülenists are routinely abducted in Turkey and abroad by Turkish police and intelligence authorities. These unlawful abductions are followed by enforced disappearances ranging from months to years. While some remain missing, most abductees reappear in local police stations or at the Anti-Terrorism Department in Ankara.

Relatives and their legal representatives that press the authorities to locate the whereabouts of disappeared individuals are warned by the police to cease their advocacy and in several cases are detained themselves. Most recently, Ankara’s anti-terror unit released a statement on Sept. 11 saying that it had detained 48 lawyers and 12 other legal professionals who represent clients accused of ties to FETÖ, the acronym the government uses for the Gülen movement. The unit said the suspects are accused of skewing investigations “in favour of FETÖ under the guise of lawyerly activity”.

Abduction is a tool employed by previous Turkish administrations as recently as the 1990s. However, under President Erdoğan’s leadership, from 2002 to 2015 only one case was transmitted to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, down from a peak of 76 cases in 1994 alone. In this same period, Turkey made ascension to the European Union a priority, which requires significant improvements in the protection of human rights.

Cases transmitted to the U.N. have dramatically increased following the failed coup in 2016. But the U.N. statistics are widely understood to be an underrepresentation. Heymans explains that, “families of disappeared individuals were also put under pressure and threatened to withdraw their applications to the U.N. after the victims reappeared again in police custody a few months later. Some of them refused to do so but others complied. This happened, for instance, with the complaints of Salim Zeybek and Özgür Kaya.”

Although the Turkish government denies involvement in domestic disappearances, in May Mustafa Yeneroğlu, a former AKP parliamentarian, said in an interview, “the abduction cases began at the time when I was chair of the Committee on Human Rights Inquiry. I talked to relevant people then, telling them that unless those people turned up within three weeks, I would do my part and raise the issue on different platforms. At the time we resolved it and those people all reappeared here and there, at police stations.”

Abroad, Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MİT) is frequently involved in organising abductions or applying pressure on foreign authorities to unlawfully return individuals to Turkey. At times it does so without the consent of the host government. For example, after the Baku Serious Crimes Court in Azerbaijan rejected Turkey’s request for deportation, İsa Özdemir was kidnapped as he left the courthouse and brought to Istanbul by the MİT. More often, MİT collaborates with domestic security services to execute rapid operations that deny targets due process protections.

“In Turkey’s poisoned domestic atmosphere, where the Gülen movement is publicly reviled by every actor, claiming credit for pursuing it abroad may be seen as politically advantageous. This is true even when the methods are so obviously illegal,” Nate Schenkkan, director for special research at Freedom House, told Ahval.

On the international front, Schenkkan said that, without strong legal accountability, Turkey is willing to absorb the costs to its various bilateral relations.

“Ankara has decided it is worth it to abduct Gülen movement members even if it poisons relations with, say, Kosovar or Moldovan authorities. I expect this is because Ankara considers these states too small and marginal to count. And to the extent it damages relations with states like Switzerland, Sweden, or Germany, I believe Ankara has already written off its relations with them due to its increasingly paranoid style of the last six years,” he said.

The significant increase in extrajudicial actions against opposition depends on the culture of impunity fostered by the Erdoğan administration. However, Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor of Middle East history at St. Lawrence University, told Ahval, “There’s no reason to assume that this is all centrally planned.”

He expects, “that part of what we are seeing are different components of the state working on different tracks in similar directions.”

“What is clear is that the general directive to seek out and punish by all means fair and foul perceived enemies of the state is still in force and is, indeed, a lynchpin of both foreign and domestic policy. The purge isn’t peripheral to state action; it is a core mission.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.