Mystery of Italian kidnapped in Turkey

An Italian citizen who disappeared on a holiday to Turkey in 2016 made contact with his family, telling them armed men had taken him prisoner.

The story emerged in December, when local Italian media said Alessandro Sandrini, 32, an unemployed worker from Brescia in northern Italy, had called his mother in October after being missing for more than a year. The man had not returned from a one-week holiday to Turkey and, in what was the first of several telephone calls, he begged for help, saying he had been taken prisoner but did not know where.

The story hit the headlines, striking a sensitive nerve in a country that has been spared major terrorist attacks like those in neighbouring France, but where rows have erupted in the past over reports of ransoms said to have been paid by the state to kidnappers holding Italians hostage.

Many in Italy have decried travellers or aid workers they call reckless for going to countries known to be dangerous, taking risks and expecting taxpayers to foot the ransom bill. Others have said payment of ransoms makes Italians more likely to be targeted for kidnap.

Sandrini’s mother said her son had told her in one of the phone calls that his kidnappers want “money, not from us but from the state,” confirming that he was being held for ransom.

Sandrini booked his trip through an agency and called his mother on arrival on Oct. 3, 2016, telling her he was in a hotel in Adana, a large city near the eastern end of the Turkish Mediterranean coast.

A week later, he asked his then-partner to pick him up at the airport on his return, but he did not show up.

It was the beginning of a nightmare for his mother, who told local media she had reported her son missing to the police.

The first acknowledged contact with her son came with his telephone call more than a year later. But when questioned, Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had known “for a long time”, and that the kidnap was being investigated by Brescia prosecutors. The news led to speculation that contact had been made previously, or that negotiations were even underway.

Uncharacteristically the story has not received much attention from mainstream Italian media, apparently respecting the discretion requested by the investigators looking into the disappearance.

But reports have highlighted the peculiarity of an unemployed worker, who according to his friends had never gone far from his hometown, suddenly departing alone on holiday to Turkey, less than three months after the country had suffered an attempted coup, in what was possibly the darkest hour for Turkey’s tourism industry.

Investigators categorically deny that Sandrini joined an armed group in Syria – the Syrian border is only 200 km from Adana - and emphasise there is no reason to doubt that he is being kept captive against his will.

The Italian embassy in Ankara said it was closely following the case, and said the investigation was proceeding with excellent cooperation from the Turkish police, even after Sandrini’s family had decided to inform the press and make their ordeal public.

In his last call that was made public, on Dec. 22 , Sandrini reportedly asked his mother to keep talking to the press, to keep up public attention, in contrast to the discretion demanded by the investigators. Several attempts to contact the prosecutor’s office for information went unanswered.

The absence of information and the curiosity of the case have left the door open to media speculation that Sandrini’s trip was not really a holiday at all. A statement from Sandrini’s former partner that he had used drugs was seized upon as one possible connection.

While the Italian Foreign Ministry warns against travelling to areas close to the border with Syria, Adana is not included in the warnings. Though Adana is famous for its spicy kebabs and is close to the birthplace of the apostle St. Paul in Tarsus, it is not a typical touristic destination. The city has become crowded with immigrants and refugees from Syria in the past four years, but it is not considered to be unsafe.

The uncertainties surrounding the bizarre case are likely, however, to have put off some Italian tourists from coming to Turkey.