According to hundreds of pages of court transcripts we reviewed, Police Chief Tahir Darbazoğlu was the man in charge of unofficial detention sites set up in the heart of the capital city of Ankara under orders from the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
A Turkish police chief with the self-proclaimed nickname of Azrael, or the Angel of Death, oversaw two unofficial torture sites with nearly 2,000 people subjected to brutal treatment in 2016, multiple victims’ statements in court have revealed.
The accounts provided by victims in various Turkish courts point out the systematic and deliberate policy of torture and ill-treatment of detainees under the watch of government officials, who not only provided impunity for the perpetrators but also refused to investigate incidents.
Darbazoğlu acted as the government point man in directing torture to extract false confessions from victims to support the government’s storyline on a July 15, 2016 failed coup. A growing body of evidence has emerged indicating that the limited military mobilization in 2016 was nothing but a false flag to further empower President Erdoğan and remove senior generals and admirals who opposed Turkey’s military incursion into Syria.
The police chief and his team of police officers, aided by a separate team from the notorious Turkish intelligence agency MIT, treated detainees with the mindset of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and considered victims’ wives and daughters war spoils who could be raped at will. The personal possessions of detainees such as cash and jewelry including wedding rings were stolen. Some of the detainees were sexually harassed and raped.
Darbazoğlu not only ordered torture sessions that lasted for days but was also personally involved in kicking and beating the victims, who were not even charged with any crime and not processed according to the Code on Criminal Procedure. The victims were stripped to their underwear, denied food and water for several days, forced to stay in stress positions for long hours, electrocuted and suffocated almost to the point of death.
The victims placed Darbazoğlu at two main torture sites. One was a sports hall located in Ankara’s Beştepe neighborhood and operated by the Turkish Volleyball Federation. The most brutal torture sessions were carried out at this unofficial detention site. There is no exact number as to how many people were kept there, but based on multiple victims’ accounts, the number ranged between 600 and 1,000. Considering the fact that the site constantly received new detainees while it also shipped others out to various prisons, the number of people who were detained at the site kept changing.
Court transcript of Maj. Okan Ataoğlu’s testimony identifying the torturer Tahir Darbazoğlu, aka the angel of death:
The second site was set up in the parking lot of Ankara’s Sincan Prison, where some 1,000 people were kept in a makeshift tent on a concrete floor covered only with a tarp. Darbazoğlu kept moving between the two sites, overseeing torture and abuse and giving orders on how to proceed. He had been advertising his self-adopted nickname pf Azrael and saying he was the judge just like God on the day of reckoning in the afterlife. In order to hide his true identity from victims, Darbazoğlu at times used aliases such as Veysel, Bayram and Cafer.
In his testimony at the Ankara 17th High Criminal Court on November 20, 2017, detainee Maj. Okan Ataoğlu, a 39-year-old staff officer at the General Staff, described Darbazoğlu as a 51-year-old man, 160 to 165 centimeters tall, dark brown skin and a heavy smoker. In his speeches to detainees, Darbazoğlu bragged about how he had served as a commando in Siirt province during his obligatory military service and often called himself Azrael.
“The most painful, the most horrific, blood-curdling incident that I can never forget was that this 51-year-old man who I’ve just described, who called himself Azrael, was shouting at me that he was going to drive my family into extinction, my family line would end, he would take away my kids, and if I had a daughter, he would turn her into a prostitute and that I would have to watch all this from inside [the prison]. I apologize everyone in the courtroom, especially parents, but I have to relate all this,” Ataoğlu said.
According to Ataoğlu words were insufficient to describe the scene he witnessed in the hall when he was brought there. “The place had turned into a pool of blood. There was no water, no food, 800-900 people were forced to use only two bathrooms with no soap,” he recalled. He was constantly beaten and kicked, denied any medical treatment and often threatened with death.
Capt. Erdem Eraslan, a 39-year-old staff officer, also described Darbazoğlu in his testimony on November 1, 2017. “The person who organized this torture in the Volleyball Federation sports hall was a person with dark brown skin, 1.65 meters tall, sunken cheeks, a chain smoker, probably in his mid-40s.” He identified Darbazoğlu as the man who ordered the torture of detainees and the person responsible for the detention site. The man was often shouting and calling himself the angel of death. “I heard that this person’s name was Tahir Darbazoğlu from the conversations among the police officers themselves,” Eraslan told the court.
Eraslan also described another officer as engaging in the sexual harassment of a young female lieutenant who was held in the hall along with her husband. He did not know the officer’s name but described him in detail. The officer was in his 30s at the time, 1.75 meters tall, dark skin, black beard, muffled voice, wearing flip-flops.
“This man took two young, married military personnel to a separate location and left his wife in her underwear in front of her husband. He then doused her with water from head to toe in the presence of some eight to 10 policemen there. He forced her to touch her toes with her hands without bending her knees in front of the police officers. This man then brought this female officer into the hall, in soaking wet clothes and with wet hair that was noticed by everybody in the hall. He repeatedly went to her to physically and verbally harass her in the presence of her husband,” Eraslan recalled.
Capt. Erdem Eraslan’s court statement that identified Darbazoğlu as the man who was responsible for the torture site:
Kenan Şimşek, 40-year-old chief sergeant, is another victim who identified Azrael as the man who ran the torture site in his testimony to the court on October 2, 2018. He recollected what he had witnessed during his eight-day stay in the sports hall. He described Darbazoğlu as a brown-skinned man, 1.70-75 meters tall, nicknamed Azrael. His subordinates called him Chief Bayram. “He was constantly saying that ‘your wives and children are our [jihadist] spoils, we know the [residential] addresses of all of you, we will go and collect all of them [wives and children]. We are going to do this and that [referring to sexual abuse and rape] to them’,” Şimşek recalled.
When he was first brought to the hall, Şimşek received a beating at the entrance by seven to eight police officers as a “welcoming gift.” He joined the others in the hall, where he estimated some 1,000 detainees were forced to kneel handcuffed from behind and stripped to their underwear. “I was left starving for three days without being given any provisions. Not even water was handed out. I did not have the strength left to kneel because of the deprivation of any provisions and from the beatings,” he said.
They were taken to makeshift desks attended by doctors to get the medical reports that were required by law to make sure no abuse or torture had taken place during detention. However, the doctors did not record anything on their reports under threat from police officers. He had to urinate in an empty water bottle because he was denied a bathroom visit and was allowed to sleep only one or two hours a day.
Sgt. Kenan Şimşek’s court statement giving details of the torture:
In his testimony in court on July 4, 2018, Maj. Emrah Ilgaz, 41-year-old staff officer, confirmed that Darbazoğlu was the man who ran the torture site. “We were taken to the sports hall belonging to the Turkish Volleyball Federation, where there was a police chief named Tahir Darbazoğlu, who declared himself to be Azrael,” Ilgaz said, adding that he was deprived of food and water for two days and subjected to beatings and verbal and physical abuse during his 10-day stay there. He had repeatedly suffered panic attacks from the on-and-off torture sessions but was never taken to a hospital for treatment.
Maj. Emrah Ilgaz’s testimony on torture:
Capt. Sadık Kazancı, 40-year-old staff officer at the General Staff, described the sports hall as a concentration camp scene from World War II movies he used to watch. In his testimony to the Ankara 17th High Criminal Court on November 11, 2017, he said he remembered being terrified when he first set eyes on the hall. “The view I saw in the hall was horrific, it looked like the concentration camps I saw in World War II films, nearly 1,000 people, all lined up like sardines, subjected to systematic torture and in a miserable state,” he recalled.
He saw a wounded man left to die in the middle of the hall, and many injured people in hospital gowns and in need of treatment had to endure torture over and over. “We were being threatened with our families. I am filing a complaint [with the bench] about a person whose name I learned was Tahir Darbazoğlu, a short man, brown, who organized this torture system there with a mindset that considered our wives and children jihadist spoils,” Kazancı added.
Capt. Sadık Kazancı’s testimony, which described the torture site as resembling a World War II concentration camp:
LYNCHING AND ACID USED AT TORTURE SITE
Another witness who came forward to describe Dabazoğlu as the man who was responsible for the brutal torture sessions was Mehmet Çetin Kaplan, s 33-year-old Air Force pilot. He told the court on February 14, 2018 that he saw a man who called himself Azrael ordering other police officers to lynch a lieutenant.
“In one incident I witnessed, at the order of a short, slightly bald, brown skinned man wearing a red T-shirt whom I thought to be the supervisor of the others, approximately eight to 10 people in riot police shirts lynched a lieutenant. One of them said he [the lieutenant] was not breathing, and they took him away. I never saw him again,” Kaplan told the court.
He also added that in another incident he witnessed, a police chief of medium height in civilian clothes who was wearing sandals threatened a soldier that his wife would be interrogated, her clothes would be removed and she would be raped. Kaplan also testified that he talked to some victims who were dragged to a special room for particularly brutal torture and shared with the court what the victims had told him after the sessions.
“I later asked these people what they had gone through when I had the chance to talk to them. Lt. Musa Kılıçaslan, a veteran who went on disability when he was shot by the PKK [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party] told me how he was first soaked with water and then hit with a stun gun. Capt. Yucel told me that acid was poured on him. I spoke to a lot of people who told me that their skulls, ribs and various bones had been fractured during the interrogations,” Kaplan said.
Air Force pilot Mehmet Çetin Kaplan’s testimony:
Akif Uygun, a sergeant, told the court on November 30, 2017 that he had experienced similar torture. He said they were handcuffed from behind and denied bathroom visits for the first three days.
“They [the police] saw themselves as the winners of a war and said: ‘We are your Azrael [angel of death], we fought against you and won. From now on, your wealth, your daughters, your children and your businesses are our [jihadist] spoils.’ This is an ISIS terrorist organization slogan. It is their way of life. I couldn’t believe that such remarks were uttered by Turkish police officers. I still can’t believe it and don’t want to believe it,” Uygun said.
Sgt. Uygun’s testimony revealed the ISIS mindset among the Turkish police:
“In this period, I had to take care of my toilet needs in water bottles when I was handcuffed from behind. Two people who were cuffed from behind would try to assist each other during this [urination into the bottle]. The urine was getting splashed on the ground, and we were trying to live in on that floor. In this way, bottles filled with urine were everywhere. It was embarrassing to witness this situation. It was inhuman, yet the torture and abuse with punches and kicks and whipping with plastic handcuffs continued,” he said.
BEATEN IN FRONT OF HIS WIFE, BABY DAUGHTER
Testifying at the Ankara 4th High Criminal Court on February 21, 2018, 1st Lt. Adem Kırcı, an Air Force pilot, said he was kicked by a man who had adopted the nickname Azrael because he was trying to hold his head high as an officer of the Turkish Armed Forces. “Because I was trying to hold my head high as an officer, I was kicked by a short, brown man whose face I will never forget. His rank might have been that of police chief, and he had adopted the codename Azrael and whose [real] name was recently mentioned here in the courtroom”, Kırcı said.
What Kırcı experienced before he was brought to the sports hall was even worse. He was detained by police on July 16 when he was stopped while driving a car along with his wife and three-and-a-half-month-old baby. The police told him he would be detained. When he asked why and demanded an explanation, the police officers got angry. He was dragged to a nearby abandoned building and handcuffed; his shoes were removed and he was forced to kneel. A police chief started crushing his feet while cursing him using extreme profanity.
Lt. Adem Kırcı’s testimony revealed how he was beaten in front of his wife and young daughter:
“He [the police chief] instructed one of the others to bring my wife. One of the cops next to him said, ‘Let’s not bring the wife as there is a little baby in his wife’s arms.’ The chief replied, ‘Do what I told you to do.’ They brought my wife with my three-and-a-half-month-old daughter in her arms. As I was face-to-face with my wife, the person behind me kicked me in the back. I fell face down because my hands were cuffed behind my back, and then I was kicked by two cops on my right and left, Your Honor, I don’t remember how long it went on. The last thing I remember was fainting from a kick in my eye that was intended to blind me. The scar from that kick is still in my eye today.” Kırcı said.
Testifying at the Ankara 4th High Criminal Court on July 2, 2018, Hamza Karaduran, 30-year-old noncommissioned officer, said both civilians and the police came to the sports hall to torture them and that they were shouting that they could do whatever they want under the state of emergency. They said: “[N]o one can hold us to account. There’s no one but us here, we’re going to be your Azrael.” For some people, they left no bone unbroken and no part of their bodies unbruised, he added. Karaduran said he was hurt the most, not from the physical torture he endured, but by the vulgar language used against their wives, daughters and mothers who the police branded as war spoils.
Hamza Karaduran’s testimony reveals the ISIS mindset in the Turkish police:
Azrael also showed up at another detention site that was set up in the parking lot of Sincan Prison with a tent and a tarp. Some 800 to 1,000 people were kept there because there was not enough space left in the sports hall. At the Ankara 4th High Criminal Court, Eren Çalışkan, a first lieutenant, told the judges on September 3, 2019 how he was tortured at this detention site. “We were forced by a policeman who identified himself as Azrael to kneel for hours and listen to his rhetoric and preaching.” He said there were about 800 people at the site and that they were all shivering from the cold nights in Ankara.
“We were put in a tent about 100 meters long and 100 meters wide with a concrete floor covered by a tarp. I call it a concentration camp. That’s when our systematic torture began,” recalled Muhammed Osman Haktanır, a 27-year-old lieutenant, in his testimony at the Ankara 4th High Criminal Court on May 6, 2019. “Then a police chief who called himself Azrael came. He kept me on my knees for hours. There were at least 1,000 people in the tent. But if I remember correctly, there were only six toilets. The systematic torture went on uninterrupted for days in this tent.”
Lt. Muhammed Osman Haktanır’s court testimony:
Mehmet Fatih Canal, a lieutenant, also identified Azrael in his testimony to the court on September 4, 2019. “We were waiting in the tent, sometimes in a standing position. Meanwhile, we were subjected to beatings by the police officers who passed by. Sometimes we’d be on our knees for hours. Sometimes the person — whom I thought to be a police chief from the talk around him — with black hair, brown skin, short stature and in civilian clothes was moving around, describing himself as Azrael and making insults and threats,” Canal said.
“I still haven’t gotten rid of the impact of what I went through in that tent, with the only difference from Hitler’s concentration camps being the lack of incinerators, but i’m sure even that would have been done if it were possible,” he added.
Lt. Mehmet Fatih Canal’s testimony in court:
Torturers in Turkey were protected by a government decree issued by President Erdoğan that provided blanket immunity for officials who were involved in coup investigations. Decree-law No. 667, issued by the government on July 23, 2016, granted sweeping protection for law enforcement officers in order to prevent victims from pressing complaints of torture, ill treatment or abuse against officials. There were multiple cases in which Turkish prosecutors refused to investigate torture allegations, citing this decree-law, or KHK (Kanun Hükmünde Kararname).
Article 9 of this KHK stated that “legal, administrative, financial and criminal liabilities shall not arise in respect of the persons who have adopted decisions and fulfill their duties within the scope of this decree-law.” The decree was criticized by human rights organizations for being a clear breach of articles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as well as the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Turkey is a party, yet it was never annulled. In fact, the Turkish parliament passed the decree into law on October 18, 2016.
As of today, no prosecution has been initiated against people who tortured detainees at the unofficial site despite multiple complaints filed by the victims and their lawyers.
A delegation from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), a Council of Europe-affiliated body, was in Turkey to conduct inspections between August 28 and September 6, 2016 and recorded some of the victims’ statements in its report. The delegation’s visit came amid widespread allegations first raised by Amnesty International, which stated that it had collected credible evidence that detainees in Turkey were beaten, tortured and on some occasions raped in official and unofficial detention centers across the country.
However, the details of the CPT report were never made public because Turkey vetoed the publication of the report and has not lifted its objection since 2016. In fact CPT President Mykola Gnatovskyy stated in 2017 that even though he “[wanted] to discuss the findings,” he could not comment on the report due to Ankara’s decision.