A Turkish family has disappeared in Pakistan, and suspicion turns to intelligence agencies

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/a-turkish-family-has
BYBy Haq Nawaz Khan and Pamela Constable
October 11
Pakistani students at a PakTurk International school comfort a Turkish teacher facing deportation in Lahore in late 2016. (K.M. Chaudary/AP)

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A commotion in the downstairs unit of a house shared by schoolteachers from Turkey woke the neighbors. A Turkish school official and his family were being taken away in the night.

Mesut Kacmaz, his wife and two daughters were restrained, blindfolded and hustled into unmarked pickup trucks in Lahore last month by more than a dozen plainclothes security agents, according to Fatih Avci, a neighbor and fellow teacher. When he tried to intervene, Avci said, he was also handcuffed and hooded, and transported to a secret facility.

“The police officers were pushing and shoving to arrest them,” Avci said in a statement after he was held for several days and released. “I saw . . . Mr. Mesut’s wife lying on the floor and two lady constables pulling her to get on her feet. Their two teenage daughters were weeping loudly.”

Pakistani authorities have not acknowledged detaining the group or holding the Kacmaz family members, who have not been seen since Sept. 27. Turkish educators and Pakistani human rights groups have alleged that they were abducted by members of the state intelligence agencies and have filed court petitions seeking their recovery.

On Tuesday, the Lahore High Court ordered the Interior Ministry to seek a reply from those agencies as to whether the family is in their custody. It also ordered the government to provide protection for other Turkish educators and halt their deportations. Police officials told the court they had no information about the family.

The court action came at a moment of escalating diplomatic tension between the United States and the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that has ties to the teacher issue. The Trump administration on Sunday suspended the issuance of non-immigrant visas in Turkey after the arrest of an employee of the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul; the Turkish government responded soon after with the same restrictions.

Kacmaz, like Avci and dozens of other Turkish nationals, was an educator at a chain of 28 PakTurk Foundation schools across Pakistan that were shut down last year at the request of the Erdogan government. Since then, the teachers have remained in Pakistan under temporary court orders and U.N. protection. About 11,000 Pakistani students attended the schools, considered among the best in Pakistan.

They are also a project of the Gulenist movement, led by Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania. Erdogan, a close ally of Pakistan, accused Gulen and his followers in Turkey of provoking an attempted coup in July 2016. He then carried out a broad crackdown on Gulenists and other dissidents and asked Pakistan to deport the teachers.

Shortly after Erdogan visited Pakistan in November, the government in Islamabad deported some teachers and canceled others’ visas, but school officials appealed to the courts and sought asylum through the U.N. refu­gee agency.

The teachers, under U.N. protection while awaiting asylum rulings, assert that if forced to go home, they are likely to face arrest and abuse at government hands.

“If we return to Turkey, we will be detained on arrival,” said Ser­dal Arslan, the former principal of a PakTurk school in Peshawar who is now jobless and unwelcome in Turkey and Pakistan. “The Turkish government will not renew my children’s travel documents, and Pakistani authorities are asking us to leave. What happened to Mesut can happen to any of us.”

Kacmaz had been an outspoken critic of the Erdogan government on social media, people in the Turkish immigrant community said, and is a director with the private Rumi Forum in Pakistan.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif, asked during a recent visit to Washington about the alleged abductions and the treatment of the Turkish teachers, said that he had no information about the Kacmaz case but that the teachers would be deported after delays granted by Pakistani courts and U.N. officials expire. 

“You’d do the same thing in America after someone’s visa expires. You deport them,” he said in a meeting with journalists at the Pakistan Embassy. “This is something which is internationally accepted. That is the only reason,” Asif added. “Otherwise, why would we do . . . such a horrendous thing, the kidnapping of a family?”

Arslan said that of about 110 Turkish teacher families, 40 have left Pakistan for other countries and 70 have remained in hopes of obtaining asylum. Most are sharing houses or apartments and rarely go out, he said.

Pakistan’s alliance with the increasingly repressive Erdogan government has put it at odds with many Western countries, including the United States.

Erdogan’s suspension of U.S. visitor visas came after an employee of the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul was arrested for alleged links to the Gulenist movement. The abrupt action created chaos and confusion in diplomatic, travel and business circles. Turkey has previously welcomed Western visitors and investors, and its economy has relied heavily on foreign tourism.

After the Kacmaz family disappeared, protests and news conferences were held by rights groups in Pakistan denouncing the abductions. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan charged that more than 20 armed people in plain clothes had taken the family, and it asked the government to immediately release them.

Pakistani parents of former students at the PakTurk schools also protested, saying Pakistan’s mistreatment of the teachers would further isolate Pakistan internationally.

“The police are expressing ignorance about the picking up of Mr. Mesut, so who did this?” asked Muhammed Zubair, a doctor whose children attended the PakTurk school in Peshawar and who represents the parent-teacher association. “This is a dangerous trend and will send a negative image of Pakistan abroad.”

Constable reported from Islamabad. Jennifer Amur in Washington contributed to this report.