A police captain who organized torture and abuse sessions in a makeshift detention facility for numerous victims in the Turkish capital has been promoted through the ranks by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government. Shockingly, he enjoys complete immunity from criminal prosecution, despite multiple complaints lodged by his victims, a Nordic Monitor investigation has found.
Based on the testimony of approximately a dozen victims that are documented in court records, Tayfun Süleyman Çil, a police captain with personnel ID number 282687, subjected student pilots holding the rank of lieutenant to torture and abuse. These young lieutenants were on the verge of completing their training to become combat pilots for F-16 fighter jets in the Turkish Air Force.
They endured systematic torture, abuse and threats, which sometimes extended to their family members. As a result of this coercion, they were compelled to sign prepared statements aimed at bolstering the false narrative surrounding a failed coup in 2016 promoted by the Erdogan government.
Held incommunicado in a football field without access to their lawyers or family members, approximately 20 student pilots endured a harrowing ordeal of abuse, torture and ill-treatment that spanned 10 to 15 days, occurring between late July and early August 2016. They were subjected to threats of sexual abuse and harm to their family members if they dared to retract their false statements during their arraignment.
When their trial began in 2017, nearly all the victims came forward and identified Captain Çil as the individual responsible for conducting the torture sessions.
However, neither the judges hearing the case nor the public prosecutors who had heard their statements and who had also received criminal complaints took any action to investigate the claims of torture. In a shocking turn of events, President Erdogan went even further by issuing a decree that granted complete immunity to police captain Çil and others like him, shielding them from any criminal investigation related to torture and abuse.
In September 2021 the government promoted Çil by appointing him deputy chief of the counterterrorism unit in the Ankara police department. He received another promotion this year.
Çil's now-deleted profile on X, formerly known as Twitter, suggested that he had Islamist and jihadist leanings along with far-right nationalist tendencies. This revelation is not entirely surprising given that most recruits chosen by the Erdogan government to fill the void left by a mass purge of approximately 40,000 police officers between 2014 and 2017, including many veteran chiefs, came from similar ideological backgrounds.
A review of Çil's postings on X revealed that he shared messages from jihadist charity the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri ve İnsani Yardım Vakfı, or IHH). It's worth noting that this charity has a history of being virulently anti-Semitic and has been implicated in providing support to both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), particularly in Syria and Libya.
Furthermore, the IHH faced an investigation for its alleged links to al-Qaeda in Turkey in 2014, but the case was prevented from proceeding by the Erdogan government.
On May 7, 2021 Çil retweeted an anti-Israel message from the IHH, along with a picture of people protesting while carrying a banner that read, "The victory belongs to Islam even if we shed our blood." Adjacent to this image, he shared a poem by nationalist poet Abdurrahim Karakoç, who wrote, "We will inscribe the path of Islam onto the soldiers' helmets, onto the wheels of carriages, onto Buddha's bronze statue."
Although he deleted his account, which had been created on February 7, 2021, some of his messages remain accessible through the internet archive machine known as Wayback.
According to court records Çil systematically and over an extended period of time subjected as many as 20 student pilots to torture and abuse at the Ankara police compound located in Anıttepe. At the time, Çil was serving as a police captain in the Smuggling and Organized Crime Department (KOM).
The victims were apprehended, their hands handcuffed behind their backs and they were detained in an open football field for up to 15 days. During this ordeal, they endured constant physical beatings, were deprived of food and water, denied access to toilets and medical care, and were forced to sleep in the scorching sun during the day and endure chilly temperatures at night.
It appears that Captain Çil was deliberately chosen by prosecutors with the intention of constructing a false narrative surrounding the failed coup. Their strategy involved coercing the victims into signing false statements that aligned with the Erdogan government's version of the events that transpired on July 15, 2016. This manipulation was achieved through the use of torture and by compelling the victims to sign statements that had been dictated to them.
The failed coup was nothing but a false flag operation orchestrated by the Turkish intelligence agency, with the aim of allowing President Erdogan to consolidate his power and shift from a parliamentary system of governance to an imperial-style presidency with no checks and balances. The coup attempt provided a convenient pretext for Erdogan to initiate a series of actions, including the purging of nearly all pro-NATO officers from the army, the dismissal of over 100,000 civil servants from various government agencies and the closure of some 200 media outlets under a state of emergency.
On July 15 approximately 100 student pilots were present at Akıncı Air Base, which hosted combat fleets for the Turkish Air Force. These young individuals were undergoing rigorous training, guided by veteran pilots, with the ultimate goal of becoming F-16 combat pilots. Importantly, they had no involvement in the events surrounding the coup attempt. However, despite their innocence, all of them were charged, summarily dismissed from the air force and subsequently imprisoned by the Erdogan government.
During the hearings at the Ankara 4th High Criminal Court, these student pilots bravely recounted the harrowing tale of the torture and abuse they endured, exposing the injustices they suffered.
During his appearance to give his defense statement before the judges on December 14, 2017, Onur Ünal (31), a trainee combat pilot, detailed how the torture and ill-treatment he experienced began when he was taken to the Ankara KOM unit. He described how they were denied access to toilets, forced to sleep on the ground during chilly nights under bright spotlights originally intended to illuminate the field for nighttime football matches. Police Captain Çil would come to the field every night, subjecting them to insults, instructing them on what statements to give and threatening them with the prospect of long prison sentences if they did not comply.
Ünal and his 13 classmates, all of whom were certified jet pilots, were assigned to the 4th Main Jet Base at Akıncı to complete their training for flying F-16s. However, on July 15, while they were at the base to take an English exam as part of their training, they unexpectedly found themselves thrust into the midst of chaotic events. To their shock, they were accused of participating in the coup attempt, even though they had absolutely no involvement in any of the events that transpired that day.
Another victim who identified Çil as his torturer was Sabahattin Tigu, a student pilot who had yet to start training missions on F-16s and was in the process of completing the theoretical part of his training. Tigu, along with three classmates — Mahmut Sil, Osman Sivlim and Zübeyir Güler — visited a police station on July 25 to report their experiences and what they had witnessed during the events of July 15 at the air base. It was during this visit that Tigu was taken to the office of police Captain Çil.
However, Captain Çil showed no interest in hearing about the events of the coup night. Instead, he insisted that Tigu and the others discuss their alleged connections to the Gülen movement, a group known for its criticism of the Erdogan government. Çil claimed to possess evidence suggesting that all the student pilots were affiliated with the Gülenists. When the lieutenants asked to see this evidence, Captain Çil became increasingly agitated, shouting and asserting that they were now under his control, saying that he could do whatever he pleased with them.
Tigu recounted a disturbing encounter with Çil, who said, "If I were to shoot you in the head right now and dump you somewhere, nobody could hold me to account." When Tigu objected, pointing out that Çil had no right to make such threats, the situation escalated. Çil began using profanities and physically assaulted Tigu, punching him in the nose. Tigu then collapsed to the floor, suffering a nosebleed as a result of the assault. These horrifying details were presented before the judges of the Ankara 4th High Criminal Court.
"When my friends saw this and stood up, civilians, who I think were police, entered and started beating and kicking them. I fell to the ground and was kicked by these people, too," he added.
In a deeply distressing turn of events, the police proceeded to display videos of people who were being subjected to torture. These individuals were shown naked with their hands bound and eyes covered while enduring curses and further torture. Additionally, the police presented images depicting individuals covered in bruises and blood resulting from severe beatings. They posed a chilling question to the victims, asking them whether this was what they wanted to experience as well. This disturbing display of violence and intimidation was part of the psychological torment inflicted upon the victims.
The ordeal continued as the police made more threats. They warned Tigu that if he were to request a lawyer, they would falsely label the lawyer as a member of the Gülenist organization, implying that this accusation would prevent him from meeting with anyone who was not approved by the authorities. This threat was part of the coercive tactics employed to ensure the victims' compliance with police demands to sign false statements and to dissuade them from any attempts to seek legal counsel or assistance.
The police subsequently separated three of the victims from the group, leaving Mahmut alone in a room with Captain Çil. Meanwhile, the remaining victims were taken to another room where a different group of individuals entered. These newcomers subjected the victims to verbal abuse, curses and physical violence.
The victims were given a stark ultimatum: They were informed that they could not leave the premises unless they complied with the demands they were presented with. To emphasize the seriousness of their threats, one of the people in the room took out a phone with images depicting individuals who had suffered torture. They used these images to intimidate the victims, warning them to take heed of what could happen to those who did not cooperate.
The abuse inflicted on the victims took an even more sinister turn as the police began inquiring about their spouses and sisters. One of the individuals in the room used a phone as a weapon, striking a victim's head with it and menacingly declared that they had not yet witnessed the worst. Another perpetrator threatened to forcibly bring the victims' spouses and families to the site and subject them to the same brutal treatment if the victims did not comply with their demands.
Faced with these horrifying threats against their loved ones, one victim described how their resistance collapsed, leaving them feeling utterly helpless in the face of such inhumane treatment. "I tried to resist the inhumane treatment they subjected me to, but when they threatened my family, all my resistance crumbled, and I felt totally helpless," Tigu recalled.
The situation remained dire for Tigu's classmates, who found themselves in a similar position. After some time, the police brought Mahmut back into their midst. Mahmut was in distressing condition, clearly having been subjected to torture and abuse. He informed the others about the threats he had faced, revealing that the police had also targeted his wife. They menacingly warned him that they would bring his wife to the location and subject her to the same horrifying treatment if he did not comply with what they wanted.
The relentless torture and, notably, the threats against their family members ultimately compelled the victims to comply with the police's demands. They were taken to a room with a computer, where the police presented them with pictures and instructed them to choose individuals to be falsely implicated as part of the fabrication of evidence. Initially hesitant, the student pilots expressed their reluctance to falsely accuse individuals whom they did not even know.
In response, the police grew angry and resorted to more coercive tactics. Subsequently, the victims were forcibly placed in a car and driven away. During this ordeal, at one point the police abruptly halted the car in a remote location and forced the victims out of the vehicle. One of the police officers brandished his firearm, drawing it from his waistband and pointing it menacingly at them. He issued a chilling threat, declaring that they would no longer show any mercy to those who caused them trouble. He went on to explain what the victims were required to do under duress.
Overwhelmed by shock and fear, Tigu recounted how he felt paralyzed and unsure of how to respond, ultimately uttering an acquiescent "OK" in submission to their demands.
During their agonizing captivity on the football field, Tigu and his fellow victims endured a grueling 10 days. Throughout this period, Tigu fell ill, suffering from the harsh conditions and brutal treatment. However, despite his deteriorating health, his captors callously denied him any access to medical treatment, compounding their cruelty.
They were eventually coerced into signing prepared statements and transcribing typed letters in their own handwriting. In a sinister twist, a lawyer was introduced into the equation during the finalization of this paperwork. Shockingly, it became obvious that this lawyer was collaborating with the police, serving as an instrument of their agenda. He pressured the victims to sign the documents without question or resistance. This highlights the extent to which the captors were determined to fabricate evidence and manipulate the victims into complicity with their false narrative.
The victims' ordeal continued as they were transported to the prosecutor's office. However, this transfer was accompanied by a chilling warning: They were explicitly told that they must repeat the same false statements they were coerced into signing at the police compound. The threat hanging over them was grim – failure to comply would result in a month-long continuation of the torture and abuse they had already endured.
What's more, to ensure their compliance, the police captain and other officers who had actively participated in their torture accompanied the victims during their questioning in the prosecutor's office. This egregious violation of due process and human rights underscores the extent to which these individuals were subjected to coercion and manipulation, making it nearly impossible for them to speak the truth or seek justice.
Suat Fatih Karadağ (32), another student pilot, also named Çil as the man who directed their torture and abuse under detention for days. "During the 13 days I was held at the soccer field, not a single question was asked about the coup. Instead, they tried to dictate certain things to us. Almost every night, Captain Tayfun Süleyman Çil, whose name we later learned, came to talk to us. He said, 'We already know that you have no involvement in this matter. Tell us you are a member of FETÖ [the Gulen movement], give us the names of at least five, 20 or 15 people [to incriminate], and benefit from the repentance law. If you don't provide names or comply with our demands, we will imprison you for life on fabricated charges," Karadağ said during a hearing on November 10, 2017 in court.
Karadağ's shocking testimony aligns with the experiences of his fellow student pilots. He described his 13 days of captivity on the soccer field, during which not a single question was asked about the coup. Instead, their captors attempted to coerce them into agreeing to certain narratives. Captain Çil frequently visited them at night.
"They deprived us of basic human needs, even those considered in the rules of war, in order to force us to comply with their demands," he added. The abuse continued in the prosecutor's office, during the arraignment hearing and even in prison after they were formally arrested.
Lt. Ertuğrul Dincer's (32) account of his experience for 15 days highlights the pervasive pattern of torture, coercion and threats that characterized their detention. He said he too was forced to sign a fabricated account and repeat it during his deposition at the prosecutor's office and arraignment in court under duress and threats.
A victim by the name of Coşkun Bardakcı (32) also identified the police captain as the torturer during a court proceeding on December 14, 2017 in Ankara. Trained in both Turkey and the US, he was assigned to Akıncı Air Base to complete the final stage of his training to become a combat pilot and fly the F-16 for the air force.
On the night of July 15, after completing their exams in the morning, he and his classlmates had planned to have a football match at an indoor football field. They had booked a time slot for the field but were informed in the afternoon that the base would be providing support for a planned counterterrorism operation. They were asked to stay and observe how such an operation was conducted by veteran pilots and learn from their experience.
However, events took a chaotic turn, and on the morning of July 16 he departed the base for his parents' home in Konya. His superiors instructed him to remain at home until July 25, when his commander, Maj. Emrah Özbağdatlı, ordered him to report to the police station and provide a statement to Police Captain Çil. Bardakcı's statement mirrored the experiences of his colleagues. When he declined to sign a falsified and prewritten statement, he endured 15 days of torture and abuse.
"I was deprived of both food and water, enduring insults, profanity and threats from the staff at the Organized Crime Unit [KOM], especially from police Captain Tayfun Süleyman Çil and his staff. They accused me of lying. The personnel who threatened me had taken photos of the individuals they tortured, and while threatening me with the same torture, they showed me the photos. I was kept at a soccer field under the scorching sun during the day, in the cold at night and under disturbingly bright lights, which deprived me of sleep. For two weeks, I always had handcuffs on, and I was not allowed to clean myself or relieve myself when needed," he told the court.
The torture persisted even after his formal arrest on August 6. He recounted being subjected to beatings by a prison guard known only by his first name, Hasan, who was an employee at Sincan No.2 L-type Prison in Ankara. Bardakcı expressed his intention to file criminal complaints against all those responsible for his torture and abuse.
Celal Onat, a student pilot, endured a similar ordeal at the KOM unit, where he identified a police captain as his torturer. On orders from his commanding officer, he reported to the police station on July 25. There he was ushered into Çil's office and pressured to disclose his affiliation with the Gülen movement. When Onat refused to sign a prepared statement, the captain resorted to threats, echoing the experiences of the others. He warned that Onat's family members would face torture and that he would be confined to an indoor sports hall, where detainees were kept naked and handcuffed at all times. Fearing the gravity of the threats, Onat eventually acquiesced and signed a roughly 10-page document that had been prepared before his arrival at the police station.
Later, he was taken to a football field where he was subjected to the scorching sun during the day and the cold of the night without any blankets provided. To shield himself from the cold, he had to resort to using a plastic garbage bag. Çil accompanied him during his trips to the prosecutor's office and subsequently to the court for arraignment. In his testimony on December 11, 2017 he recounted, "We were warned that if we were to retract our statements in court or introduce new information not present in our initial statements, we would be transferred to the Counterterrorism Unit [TEM] for detention, and this time, the detention period would last for 30 days."
Mesut Açıkgöz, another victim, also highlighted the abuse inflicted by Captain Çil, who threatened him with sodomy. Recounting his terrifying experience over the course of 13 days, from July 27 to August 8, on the football field, Açıkgöz detailed how the police captain described the sodomy they subjected victims to in the detention facility.
"Police captain Tayfun Süleyman Çil relentlessly subjected us to pressure, day and night. He would threaten us, saying things like, 'Today, your commander had a bottle inserted into his rear,' and then claim that they knew we were unaware of the coup attempt. Still, we had to provide them with names. They insisted that we give them not just three or five names but at least 10 to 15 names so that they could release us, applying tremendous pressure and making baseless claims," he told the judges on November 8, 2017.
"During detention, one individual who requested a lawyer and another person had their pants pulled down and were threatened with sodomy by a bottle during interrogation. Some were even threatened with being thrown off the sixth floor," he added.
Ahmet Oğuzhan Yıldız, a trainee pilot, also testified in court on November 16, 2017 and detailed the torture he endured at the hands of Captain Çil. He said the captain pressured him to make false statements and accusations.
"One day, while we were staying at the football field, my name was called. They told me that my statement would be taken, and they brought me to an empty room in a high-rise building. The police officers who brought me told me to wait there. There was nothing in the room except two tables and chairs. Meanwhile, shouts, insults and crying were coming from outside. After a while, three people in civilian clothes came into the room. Two of them stood in front of me, one behind me, and asked me to tell them what I had experienced that night. So I explained everything that had happened to me in full detail. After I finished, one of the people sitting across from me suddenly stood up, slammed his hand on the table in front of me and shouted, 'Get up!' And he told me to pull down my pants. Meanwhile, the person standing behind me was constantly hitting my head. I don't want to offend anyone here; however, he displayed some [torture] images on the phone. Then he put a soda bottle he was holding on the table in front of me and suddenly softened his tone and said there were commanders who took this bottle in [the ass]. 'We also know that you, the trainees, are innocent and that you weren't aware of the coup,' he told me but added, 'We will correct some issues in your statement so that your traitor commanders receive the punishment they deserve and you get out of here without any trouble'," Yıldız recalled.
Threatened with sodomy, Yıldız agreed to sign the prepared statement. He was told he would be called later and sign the same statement, this time, in the presence of a lawyer, to make it appear as though due process was followed by the police. He was summoned three or four days later for this. After his arraignment on his 13th day of detention, he was sent to Sincan Prison.
To this day, neither Çil nor any other officers identified as torturers have been brought to justice or held accountable. Torture has sadly become a systematic practice employed by Turkish police in detention facilities, targeting government critics, opponents and dissidents. It has become an integral part of the Erdogan government's campaign of ruling through intimidation. The documented cases of torture have been recognized by UN and Council of Europe bodies as well as numerous nongovernmental organizations. However, despite publicly claiming to follow a zero-tolerance policy for torture, the Erdogan government continues to implement and perpetrate such acts of abuse.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Sweden-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.