The death of a Turkish migrant after he traveled to a Greek island has prompted demands for Ankara to take up the case with Athens, amid accusations of torture and the illegal "push-back" of migrant boats.
Despite graduating from university, 30-year-old Barış Büyüksu was struggling to find a well-paid job. At the end of September, he left his home in the Turkish city of Izmir for what he hoped would be a new life in western Europe. It was the last time his family would see him alive.
Büyüksu paid people smugglers for a place on a migrant boat, which took him from the Turkish coastline around Bodrum to the Greek island of Kos, a journey of just a few kilometers.
The smuggling gang gave him a fake Bulgarian identity card. Büyüksu planned to reach Athens and then travel to France, a journey several of his friends had already successfully made. He hoped to find a job and save money before returning to Turkey.
On October 21, as he was waiting on the dockside in Kos to board a ferry to Athens, a friend told the family he witnessed Büyüksu being detained by police and then bundled into an unmarked black van. VOA has not been able to verify this account.
The following day, back in Büyüksu’s hometown of Izmir, his family received a call from Turkish police, who told them their son was dead – and that his body bore signs of torture.
The Turkish coast guard says it found Büyüksu, badly injured but still alive, in an inflatable boat that had been pushed back into Turkish waters by Greece. The police report says 15 Palestinian asylum-seekers were also on board, including three women and three children. Turkish authorities say Büyüksu died before a medical team could reach him.
Baris’ father, Reyis Büyüksu, spoke to VOA at the family home in Izmir.
“A policeman from Bodrum central police station … said your son has been killed by Greeks and said that I need to be at the police station at 8:00 in the morning. We picked up the body from the forensic medicine institute and brought it here and buried him,” he said.
“My son being killed is not only a problem of Turkey, but it is also a problem for humanity, this is a crime against humanity. We don't want any other family to experience this,” Reyis Büyüksu told VOA.
Baris’ mother, Saime Büyüksu, said her son’s death has devastated the family.
“He wanted to marry, he had a girlfriend, he had dreams, and he was saying ‘Mother, we should build a house, I will buy gold and I will have a wedding when I come back.’ He went with his dreams to work there. But his dead body came back to me,” she said.
A full autopsy is being carried out in Istanbul and the family is yet to receive the results. The initial autopsy, carried out immediately after Büyüksu’s death and seen by VOA, recorded injuries consistent with torture: cuts and bruises covering his face and body, and internal bleeding.
Büyüksu’s injuries included cuts across his face and neck, together with bruising (ecchymosis) around his eyes and mouth; large bruises across his chest some 25 centimeters wide; and several cuts across his back, including some half-a-meter across.
VOA also obtained copies of statements given to Turkish police by some of the other refugees on the boat, who say they were detained in Greece alongside Büyüksu. The refugees say they were stripped naked and beaten. They claim they heard Büyüksu being tortured in an adjacent room, including by what they believed to be electrocution. It is impossible for VOA to verify these claims.
Abdurrahman Zekud, a Palestinian asylum-seeker, gave the following account to Turkish police:
“We could hear the sound of that person in pain. As we could understand they were torturing him with electricity. I could hear sound of a machine that I thought it was electrical torture machine. The torture took all night long, and at around 5:00 a.m. they took us out of the room. They took that Turkish citizen out too and brought him next to us. They put all of us in a vehicle and took us next to the sea. First, they opened the handcuffs on our hands and then the blindfolds on our eyes,” Zekud said.
“The Turkish citizen was half unconscious because of the torture. They laid him face down by the sea. Then they put us in a Greek coast guard boat, and they did not return anything they took from us,” he said “After travelling out to sea for a while, they threw a life raft into the ocean from the coast guard boat and they threw us into that raft one by one, and they threw the Turkish citizen too into that raft. Because the Turkish citizen was half unconscious, he was almost falling into the sea, and I held him and made him sleep on the floor.”
“After around 30 minutes, the Turkish coast guards rescued us. I helped the Turkish citizen to get into the Turkish coast guard boat. As I remember he asked the coast guard for water, but he could hardly talk, and he hardly could drink the water. And later on, we realized he had died,” Zekud told Turkish police.
Turkish authorities told VOA that they are still investigating Büyüksu’s death and did not confirm whether the issue had been raised with Greece.
An official statement from the Turkish Interior Ministry, dated October 22, states that: “Fifteen irregular migrants in the life raft, which were detected by the assigned coast guard boat, were rescued alive. There was one unconscious person among the migrants. It was determined that there were signs of assault on the body of the person… Autopsy studies are continuing in order to determine the cause of death of the person in question. An investigation has been initiated by the Bodrum Chief Public Prosecutor's Office regarding the incident.”
Opposition lawmakers and human rights groups are calling on Turkey and Greece to launch wider investigations into Büyüksu’s death. Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, an MP from the opposition HDP party, raised the incident in parliament last November.
“The Greek authorities committed murder. [The family] want this matter to be considered and followed up by the foreign ministry,” Gergerlioğlu said.
Greek police have not responded to repeated VOA requests for comment.
VOA asked the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum what happened to Barış Büyüksu. The ministry gave the following statement to VOA:
“The ministry… and the Asylum Service has no such name recorded in their database. As a consequence, there can't be any comment from our side. It is also noted again that there is no such name in the Police list either, although we are not fully competent to respond on behalf of the Hellenic Police… Therefore, we can make no further comment on the case,” the statement said.
Büyüksu’s family say he did not register for asylum as he wanted to leave Greece to reach France.
In a statement, Stella Nanou, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told VOA: “UNHCR Greece was made aware of this reported case through the relevant online public announcements by the Turkish Coast Guard. We do not have further or direct information.”
“UNHCR has repeatedly warned of increasing violence and human rights violations at various European borders, several of which have resulted in tragic loss of life. Although many incidents go unreported for various reasons, UNHCR has interviewed thousands of people across Europe who were pushed back and reported a disturbing pattern of threats, intimidation, violence and humiliation. Reports received indicate frequent use of violence, strip searches, destruction of property, family separation and other rights violations during the apprehension and the subsequent summary forced return operations,” Nanou told VOA.
The Greek coast guard denies pushing migrant boats back into Turkish waters, despite widespread evidence documented by non-governmental organizations and the United Nations. In the past, Greek authorities have told VOA that while they do not engage in pushbacks, they will continue to do whatever it takes to shield Greece’s frontiers, and the rest of Europe, from illegal entries of migrants.
Barış Büyüksu was the eldest of four children. His younger brother Umut Büyüksu told VOA he would not rest until he had discovered the truth.
“I want my brother's killers prosecuted. I want to find out who they are. I don't want this case to be covered up like this,” he said.
The Büyüksu family is left searching for answers: Who killed a beloved son and brother? Who will deliver justice?
His death also raises questions over the policing of Europe’s frontiers and the human rights of those seeking a better life.