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HomeInterviewsDr. Şefika Nur Kurt : 'The ECHR has let us down'

Dr. Şefika Nur Kurt : ‘The ECHR has let us down’

The recent years passed like an incessant nightmare, the upturned lives everywhere, innocent souls imprisoned unimpeachably, forced abductions, tortures, and human rights violations; resulting in generations lost, masses who lost their desire for living, people perishing on their way to freedom, and constantly increasing suicides as helpless people kill themselves, screaming they can’t take it anymore… One wishes to say, ‘What really happened?’ Yet, what succor can this question or its answers give? While some may still answer these in their own way, others may not even have time to think about such questions due to their heavy grief as they search for their abducted relatives.

Sefika Nur Kurt is just one of the aggrieved. She is a medical doctor whom we have known her through social media, especially during the campaigns she carried out to locate her elder brother Yusuf Bilge Tunç after his abduction. She was dismissed from public service via a statutory decree in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt that brought along massive human rights violations in Turkey in recent years. She had to flee her home country due to the repercussions of this phase. As far as I can see, what befell her brother has made Mrs. Şefika forget her own ordeals. She is devoted to the mission of locating her brother, which she considers more important than all.

Ms. Sefika Nur Kurt

Although such incidents, lack of justice, successive neglect and indifference, and the public opinion’s disregard for this pressing issue upset her and her family deeply, they sustain hope and keep their eyes on the road awaiting Yusuf Bilge to emerge soon. Mrs. Şefika Nur defines Yusuf Bilge as a beloved brother, husband, and father. Speaking of her brother another time she had said, “If those who harmed him had known him, if they had known how ingenuous and honest a man he is, they would have not done so.” Isn’t this also true for hundreds of thousands of people prosecuted, arrested, and sentenced after the failed and bloody coup attempt?

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Yusuf Bilge Tunç has been missing for three years

Yusuf Bilge Tunç has been missing for three years. He has not been heard of since. His parents, wife and children are devastated. Speaking in a broadcast, his father, a retired teacher, said in agony he rushed from pillar to post in several public institutions and appealed, “Please, I too was a government officer. Don’t make me beg, please find my son!” but the officials did nothing.

In this interview where you will read about the abduction of a high-level government officer and the details of the events ensued, you can understand through a closer scope on several issues such as the recent abductions, tortures, human rights and judicial violations in Turkey. I leave you to read the details of Yusuf Bilge Tunç’s abduction.

Mrs. Şefika Nur Kurt, thank you for agreeing to give an interview to the Politurco. The abduction of your brother Yusuf Bilge Tunç is one of the most discussed grievances in Turkey. Your brother Yusuf Bilge has been missing for 950 days, that is, approximately 2 years and 7 months.

Before moving on to this topic, could you briefly tell us about yourself?

I am the second child of my teacher parents with three children. I worked as a medical doctor and academic in Turkey for five or six years. Following the dismissal of my father-in-law – who was a deputy governor – from the public service for an absurd reason like ‘the likelihood of his affiliation with a terrorist organization’ I too was dismissed from the Hacettepe University, where I continued my scientific research, because I was his daughter-in-law. Based on this absurd and unsubstantiated reason, I was terminated by a statutory decree with no explanation or valid justification. We exerted ourselves to find other jobs and have our livelihood in Turkey for a while. When the pressures became unbearable, I had to seek refuge in Germany with my family, taking risks as we travelled on an unsafe route. Although I have been immensely shaken by what happened to my brother, I am endeavoring to build a life here again.

How, when, and where was your brother Yusuf Bilge abducted?

My brother Yusuf Bilge said goodbye to his wife and went to work as usual on August 6, 2019. He told his wife he would stop by a friend in Keçiören and then visit the outlet in Gimat Wholesalers Market where he regularly bought supplies and return home in the evening. In the evening, he did not return. That was the first time his family experienced such a thing. Usually, he would inform his wife if there was an urgent task or delay. That he could not be reached caused us think the possibility he had been abducted. We had heard about many people abducted in 2019 and earlier and given the unsubstantiated and heavy charges against my brother, we felt the same concern and uneasiness. We believed he had been spirited away.

We immediately went to the police and started searching for Yusuf Bilge through our own means. The law enforcement’s persistent failure to take required actions to find my brother confirmed that he had been abducted and his last seen location was obscured. My brother was abducted from downtown Ankara, the capital of Turkey, in the Gimat district in broad daylight.

Why do you think Yusuf Bilge was abducted? Can you tell us a little about his life?

Yusuf Bilge studied public administration at the university. After graduation, he worked as a financial services specialist in the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries. He is married and has three children. He was dismissed from the public service through a statutory decree in April 2017. After his dismissal, he made a living for his family by buying paper cups and plates from wholesalers and distributing them to shops. In 2017, a criminal investigation was launched against him on suspicion of being linked with terrorism. Due to the State of Emergency imposed in 2017, the impartial courts, and the news of torture under custody, he preferred to change his residence rather than surrender in such a period. Back then, his third child was born and he did not want to leave his family alone at a time people reported at police stations and were arrested on the spot, so he chose not to surrender. He moved to another house.

No matter how difficult that period was for him and his family, he never left his family alone, and we also met him frequently. Even though we invited him to come abroad like us, he did not want to leave his children and wife alone with their newborn.

About the first part of the question, let me say this: I am sure my brother was abducted, probably for reasons like someone gave his name during an interrogation or court hearing or his being linked to a position in the Gülen Community. For whatever reason, the abduction of a person in a so-called constitutional state in broad daylight is unacceptable. I mean, I cannot reconcile with such a thing. I cannot place it in my mind.

What happened after he was abducted? What did the police and other units do about it?

When my brother did not come to his house, his wife called his friend, whom my brother had said he would meet in Keçiören district, and asked him where her husband was. My brother’s friend said he had talked to him around 12:20 in the afternoon, and then my brother left. Then my brother’s wife called all of their acquaintances, especially us, and said she could not reach her husband. She could not hear about Yusuf Bilge from anywhere. This being the case, my brother’s wife wished to report his disappearance accompanied our lawyer the next day. The police said they would register no complaint if 24 hours did not pass after the incident. A day was lost like that. On August 8, two days after the abduction, we had the police file the first missing person report. Meanwhile, interestingly, the police did nothing.

Yusuf Bilge’s car, abandoned on the side of a road

On August 10, my brother found Yusuf Bilge’s car, abandoned on the side of a road, by his own means. Upon that, the police were informed, and a crime scene investigation was requested. Upon that request, the police officials said there was no record on Yusuf Bilge and said they could not fulfill the request. We were shocked. Two days earlier, we had officially filed our application accompanied by a lawyer. Our lawyer said either the application had been deleted on purpose or it had been pretended to be received (and never received). We went to the police station to report my brother missing again, and we had the same procedure done for the second time. Later, we learned from the state officials’ response to the ECHR exactly 11 days later that the prosecutor’s office had forwarded the case to the Head of the Missing Persons Bureau. Besides the fact that the police and the prosecutor’s office did not care about the incident and tried to obscure it, our application to the CIMER (the Grievance Cell at the Office of the President) was forwarded to the respective unit weeks later. We learned these much later when we received the file. A month later, a confidentiality order was imposed on the file. This decision was imposed upon the file of an abducted person, and it took ten months to be imposed. We received no information about my brother’s whereabouts and what was done about to locate him during this period. We waited helplessly.

For example, when the prosecutor’s office wrote to the BTK (Information and Communication Technologies Authority), they did not ask where my brother’s last phone signal had been tracked along with place or route information. The official letter included questions like who that mobile number was registered to (which will serve nothing) were asked. At all these stages, the respective institutions and units of the state boondoggled as if they were busy doing something about finding my brother, but they all were superficial actions taken to manage the situation, not to solve the case.

The Police made no investigation

The actions they took when we asked them to investigate the crime scene, especially where the car was located, and the events after that were very interesting. The police officers who arrived at the scene after our finding of my brother’s car just logged a report and left the scene with no investigation. The first time they refused, saying there was no registration of complaint. We did not stop and applied to the prosecutor’s office for a crime scene investigation with three more petitions. However, the prosecutor’s office did not find it appropriate to conduct a crime scene investigation in and around the vehicle. For some reason, about six months after the incident, it was decided to inspect the car the day after the car had been washed for sale. Of course, no evidence could be found. This caused us to look more suspiciously at all what had happened and to worry even more about what might have happened to my brother because the state blatantly tried to obscure the incident and facts systematically.

So, you say the police obscured both the case and the evidence, and they did that deliberately?

I certainly think so. There is no other explanation for this. Why wait for a crime scene investigation for six months, despite all our petitions. Why six months later and not before? Meanwhile, we applied to the ECHR. We realized later that the ECHR had asked the state about Yusuf Bilge just before the prosecutor’s office took this decision, and the state officials immediately issued this review decision. The ECHR asked the state if they had done any probe on the missing person. The date when this question was asked and the timeframe the state officials said they should conduct a car location investigation are very close. I think this decision had been taken for the state officials to say “Let’s do something, at least”. There is no other explanation.

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Have you had any legal initiatives? If so, can you share what happened?

As family, we filed the required and detailed applications and have followed up from the very first day for the investigation authorities to examine the evidence. We moved the HSYK (Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors) and the Constitutional Court as the apex court since we believed an effective investigation had not been carried out. However, our petitions were turned down stating no serious risk existed against the applicant’s life or his/her material or moral integrity, and there was no violation within the frame of the obligations of the state.

Did the reluctance of the prosecutor’s office and the police and their attempts to obscure the case have any impact on this refusal?

Yes, definitely. The prosecutor’s office asked the police to conduct the required investigations – such as scanning camera recordings and sifting mobile phone signals – exactly after three months. Six months later, the police replied to the letter of the prosecutor’s office, stating this issue had been handled by another unit, not the unit to which the letter had been addressed. It took them five or six months to write a reply on such a vital issue. Meanwhile, there conducted no examination of evidence. The prosecutor wrote due request to the respective police unit three months later.

We are talking about a human life here; even if one imagines he was not abducted and was not subjected to torture, the prosecution and the police showed no diligence in this regard. No effective probe was conducted and my brother’s case was deliberately neglected. I think they adopted a perversive stance deliberately to corrupt the case. If desired, a quick probe could have been conducted, and my brother could have been found.

Have you applied to international courts and bodies?

We applied to the ECHR and the United Nations. We applied to the United Nations through the Human Rights Association (HRA). HRA asked Turkish authorities about my brother. The fact these international judicial authorities and other bodies ask questions to Turkey does not even pressure the state officials. In other words, questions are asked, but the Turkish authorities have an entirely different viewpoint towards the occurrences, and they gloss over questions and give evasive answers. Our initiatives may help in the European Union report prepared on Turkey, and perhaps some pressure may be applied on Turkey from this time on.

Turkey’s replies to these institutions are still very superficial. For example, the Turkish authorities say the camera records were examined, but only one of the 24 cameras on the route was viewed. Again, the answers given to the ECHR mention the criminal investigation against my brother. This is very interesting, yet also irrelevant because the subject, scope, and purpose of both cases and investigations are entirely different. In one case, he is a suspect with baseless accusations and statements, and in the other, he is the victim. And the authorities still say the domestic legal remedies have not been exhausted. The Turkish state defends this view. Despite the lack of an ongoing investigation, the state itself hinders every step from being taken. In the annual report of the European Commission, it was stated ‘no further domestic legal remedy exists in Turkey.’

ECHR Refused our application

We applied to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) within the month of my brother’s abduction, and they announced their decision on March 17 a few days ago. To everyone’s surprise, they refused our application. The ECHR rejected the case on the grounds that ‘the Turkish state had taken every step required to find my brother Yusuf Bilge and the so-called investigations had been carried out properly’. This decision greatly disappointed us and the relatives of the other abductees.

How will the course of Yusuf Bilge’s case continue with this decision of the ECHR?

Frankly, I was hopeful of the ECHR, it is a reputable court, and it has sanctions on Turkey. I thought its decision would severely affect my brother’s fate. Unfortunately, there is not much that can be done legally in the light of this EHCR decision.

What kind of process do you foresee about this ECHR decision and the current condition of the case? What exactly do you think happened?

I cannot make an assertive comment, but this is very clear: The authorities deliberately waited for all the evidence to become obscured and then conducted a sham probe. For the ECHR, this was enough! Here, we have seen that the ECHR is brazenly open to manipulation, effectively in the decision mechanisms. This is an unfortunate situation. My brother is nowhere to be found, we do not know what happened to him, and the judiciary let us down with this EHCR decision.

Do you plan a reaction to this EHCR decision?

First, we will try to elucidate the injustice done and proclaim it at every opportunity. We will also proclaim how the ECHR could not duly evaluate the case with its details and documentation in our possession and that it had taken a wrong decision. Political decisions will change over time; we frequently observe in this our country. At this stage, we will follow up this case and fulfil what is required by reviewing all the steps to be taken to bring this case back to the ECHR within a more detailed and comprehensive legal file. This may take time, but we will do all we can.

Isn’t there another international authority that binds Turkey to follow this issue?

I don’t know what it means legally, but I am thinking of bringing this issue to the European Parliament, which concerns Turkey in taking initiatives. In Germany, I attempted to bring the case to their agenda. A committee writes a report on Turkey for the European Parliament, and I sent an e-mail to each member telling what happened to my brother Yusuf Bilge. I received positive feedback from some and they said they noted the issue and would investigate it. They said they would try to get detailed information on the subject. I think it will be important to include the other victims of forced abductions and tortures in this report.

In your reply to the ECHR, you said the Turkish regime stated this issue is within the authority of the judiciary in Turkey because domestic legal remedies about this case have yet to be exhausted. What is meant here? What is the status of the case from the perspective of the Turkish state?

According to the state, the case is still under investigation even after 31 months into my brother’s abduction, and no serious judicial process has been carried out. What kind of probe is this that it has not been completed for 31 months, and that the state could not examine city surveillance camera footages and pinpoint my brother’s location through his mobile phone signal for all this time? Meanwhile, the police did nothing to find out the numbers of the cameras along the road. Again, we took the initiative and noted the numbers on these cameras by walking along the route. The footage from only one camera was viewed.

Meanwhile, as I have just mentioned, we applied for legal remedies to speed up the case. We started with regular courts, applied to the Court of Appeals, and then to the Constitutional Court. They also rejected our petitions citing that the investigation is in process.

I would like to point out here: What kind of a probe is this? It hasn’t been over for 31 months, and this has not been considered unusual even by the Turkish judiciary and the ECHR. It is still said there is no neglect and that we must wait. People still want to get the answer to what we are looking for.

In your campaigns to find Yusuf Bilge, you used rhetoric like “Abducted Law-Justice Not Restored,” “2019: The Year of Abductions”, “Why is Everyone Silent?” and “Speak Up!” Could you tell us about these campaigns? Did you get an overall positive response to your call? Why is everyone silent?

There have been many campaigns. There was even a peaceful demonstration in front of the ECHR asking where Yusuf Bilge was. I joined them. Again, for example, I participated in the pedaling action of the Unconditional Justice Movement with the same concern. I tried to express my grievances by participating in activities where I could make my voice heard. I participated in these actions not only for my brother but to support all victims of abductions like my brother.

Unfortunately, there is no effective legal system in Turkey that can investigate these grievances and help us find my brother. Although in social media too – like many people on Twitter – tens of thousands of people tweet using the hashtags you mentioned in the question and inform about this incident, nothing happened.

For the rest of your question about how people responded to these calls; many people knew about the protest rallies and heard about them in the social media campaigns, it is a risk for many to mention this issue, because perhaps they are afraid, under pressure or feel uneasy due to the oppressive practices of the current government. They thought it would be safer to stay in the background. Other sections of the society did not even talk about this issue. Everyone acts to help the people of their own group. Everyone defends the rights of those close to themselves. Unfortunately, this is a terrible situation for our country. People from all walks of life are abducted. After 2016, 32 people were abducted, most are associated with the Gülen Movement. Besides these, there were also abductees from other opposition groups. While this is a blaring crime committed against humanity, unfortunately, the abductees are treated according to their affiliations and denominations. This is a very sad situation, and the state – aware of this division – continue persecuting the victims. I think these abductions can be prevented if all segments of our society can unite and raise a common voice.

Many people supported my brother on social media. This is not enough because only a specific group of people make their voices heard. Most of the society is perhaps unaware and even people say things like, “Oh well! Serves them right!” unfortunately for the victims.

In 2019, seven people, including your brother, were abducted, and six emerged; only one of them, Gökhan Türkmen, dared to speak and told he had been severely tortured. Do you think the same may have happened to your brother after the other people’s silence and Turkmen’s statements?

Gökhan Türkmen is a person of key significance. Gökhan Türkmen emerged at the Counterterrorism Department (TEM) 9 months after his abduction. This is one of the police units reportedly tasked to search and find my brother. Albeit sadly, the police are hand in glove with the perpetrators of abductions. Gökhan Türkmen’s discovery had been a great comfort for us. The fact he had been discovered gave us hope that my brother would also be found soon. Even if it’s a long time, like nine months, it makes one think; it means they can be found. If they are abducted, it means they come back somehow. We were hopeful back then, thinking maybe my brother could also return, but it has not happened so far. It’s been a long time. For my brother, this still has not happened.

No doubt, Gökhan Türkmen’s statements are crucial. He took significant risks and told what he knew. Because as far as I know, people abducted and then released are kept in solitary cells in prisons and cannot access their lawyers. They cannot defend themselves by any means and the threats against them continue in prisons. Considering all these, it is great that Turkmen told in the court all what had happened to him during his abduction and forced detention. A great act of courage. I am grateful to him for doing this.

After Turkmen’s speech, his wife was targeted. If I’m not mistaken, they initiated investigations against her, and her Twitter account was hacked. Much more was done to silence her. Even though she knew these things, her silence and expression constituted ample evidence for other abductions. While these were happening, the state did not search for other abductees after what Turkmen had told. No investigation has been conducted on what he said, and no action has been taken. Here, too, we have seen the method of covering up everything, the state knows this best. This is a harrowing situation. A person comes out and says terrible things. He talks about severe torture but the state does nothing. Our psychologies had been in tatters due to my brother’s abduction. It was tough for us even to read what Turkmen told. Maybe the same things happened to my brother. Even thinking about it gave us a tough time. I couldn’t come to my senses for two years with the news of abductions we read, the news of torture, ill-treatment, and so on. After two years, I can say my life has become normal. It’s like these two years passed as if they were blank slates. I wonder what my brother is doing and where he is now. I always spend time thinking about him. I believe this is the most significant piece of evidence showing the state is behind these abductions. It’s not just one example. There are other examples. Although the abduction footage and evidence of Sunay Elmas, one of the abductees who is still missing, were obtained, the authorities did not even examine the images; they do not want it to be investigated. The images are very clear, and although the faces of the abductors are visible, they are not deliberately caught.

There are also statements made by people working at the MIT (National Intelligence Organization) about these abductions. These, too, are ignored. Someone in an important position at the MIT made statements saying “We abduct and torture” as if it were normal. You know, this is a well-known fact, but unfortunately, it is a fact not addressed.

Were there people like political party leaders or deputies whom you could reach and requested official help? If so, what did they do about it? What do they think?

We contacted Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu on the first day and solicited his assistance. Thanks to him, he has consistently brought this issue to the agenda since the first day, occasionally, and has not given up. He even put forward parliamentary questions. Unfortunately, these were not answered.

Recently, I also talked to Mustafa Yeneroğlu. He and his party submitted a parliamentary question to the Ministry and the National Assembly. I had heard Mustafa Yeneroğlu had a significant contribution in finding the six previous abductees. He has a video on his social media account where he clearly states these abductions were carried out by the state operatives, that he knows the perpetrators, and that he will intervene if what is required is not done. Yeneroğlu’s statement may have helped the emergence of these six abductees. The questions he gave about my brother were left unanswered, and nothing happened. Sezgin Tanrıkulu also brings up this issue occasionally. In this way, three deputies actively followed and asked about my brother’s case. My father especially tried to reach party leaders and other officials, but he did not get many answers.

Although there are solid evidences and statements of abductees about these abductions and tortures in Turkey, the state denies and ignores them. Despite the abductions by the state in history and their evidence, Vice President Fuat Oktay answered a question about your brother, saying, “The Turkish state has never abducted people.” What would you like to say about this?

There are those who experienced things and there are those who express what they experienced. These expressions were heard and recorded in courts. Recently, there were Ayten Öztürk and Mustafa Özden. They told their experiences in court. Many people talked about their abduction and torture under detention. There are even camera footages, but it is quite absurd to claim there are no abductions in Turkey. It is something said to avert the question. We know Saturday Mothers, the mothers looking for their children who disappeared under custody. These are not one person, not five people, but tens of hundreds of people. Unfortunately, these issues are not considered in any case. Normally, the state authorities are expected to respond to such requests and questions for considerations and probes, but they don’t even do that. I would be pleased if the Vice President just did or said so. If he said, ‘We examined the file, we viewed the footage from 24 cameras on the route where Yusuf Bilge had been abducted, here are the reports, there is no footage that shows he was abducted in any way,’ I would be very relieved because of this. I wish there was such a thing. What we want is just to have this probe done transparently. Let the results be clear and shared. To say ‘such a thing does not exist’ doing nothing is unbefitting for a state official. Everyone says this. What we expect is a serious investigation. The state has several means; we do not have them. We expected the state officials to fulfill their duties, and saying ‘such a thing does not exist’ without doing these serves to cover up the incidents. Both the state’s police and their superintendents act and talk in the same way as if they made a pact; this raises suspicions. Normally, Fuat Oktay’s statement cannot be interpreted in any other way.

What do you think about the current situation of your brother Yusuf Bilge, with all the unknowns and the state’s silence on this issue and the final decision of the ECHR?

I waited for a long time with hope. In the ninth month of his abduction, I said he could be kept for longer if they held him for nine months until then. So somehow, I expected him to emerge one day soon. My parents and my brother’s children always dreamed that my brother was alive and at home. Maybe that’s why my family still looks forward to my brother’s homecoming; yet I think after all this time, he lives in another world, not in this world. The possibility of his return is so slim after all this time. But still, there is no such thing that he died or something had happened to him. That’s why one cannot always rid oneself of that slight possibility. I wonder if he will come one day. Even if it’s a slim prospect, it’s always there. One cannot give up on waiting. This is perhaps the hardest part. You can reconcile with the death of a loved one much quicker, but it is tough to wait like this.

What is the situation of Yusuf Bilge’s wife and children after his abduction and the absence of news from him?

His wife and children are also having a hard time. His wife is emotionally frayed, but tries her best to be there for the children. She strives hard to stand up for them. Only one of their children is old enough to understand this; the others are younger. This is how she shares little about their father’s condition with them. She and my parents didn’t tell the kids anything about their father’s abduction. More precisely, they did not want the children’s psychology to deteriorate. Both my brother’s family and we experience difficult times.

What would you like to call out to the authorities and entities on this occasion?

I expect little domestically, as the rule of law and the tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have been suspended in Turkey with the Erdogan regime. Still, the contributions from the international institutions and organizations to solve this pressing issue will be very valuable. We have often observed the Erdogan regime could not stand against some demands from abroad and stepped back. I think if all relevant international institutions and organizations, especially the US Senate and the European Parliament, can pressure Erdoğan to stop abductions and produce the abductees, it will work. From here, I call on all international institutions and organizations to support us so my brother can be found.

Thank you again, Ms. Şefika, for answering all questions honestly.

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Engin Yigit is a Politurco columnist, activist, and author. Follow him at @enginyigtt.

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