Our Turkish hell
TWO Coleraine men, detained and accused of being Al Qaida terrorists during a terrifying three-day ordeal in Turkey, have begun a campaign to clear their names.
Marathon runners Peter Ferris (52) and his friend, Harold Reilly (31), were threatened with 20 years in prison and endured hours of questioning without food and water after being apprehended by machine-gun wielding security police at Izmir Airport.
Airport police had become suspicious of the pair after they had booked separate flights with travel operator Thomas Cook to the sunshine resort of Kusadasi and were due to sit separately in the flight home to Belfast on July 24.
Back home in Coleraine and physically exhausted, the pair revealed that they were:
* Followed for the entire week of their holiday by undercover police;
* Transported in a bugged limousine and taken on a terrifying drive through the back streets of Kusadasi where they feared they would be executed;
* Forced to escape the heavily armed Izmir Hospital after Peter had collapsed with a stomach haemorrage and stress and told he could die;
* Denied making any telephone calls home and had access to the internet blocked;
* Threatened by police that they would be thrown in jail and never see their families again.
* Accused of being part of the 9/11 bombings of New York and plotting to blow up their Belfast-bound plane.
Speaking of their “nightmare holiday”, Peter, who was awarded an MBE for his charity marathon running 11 years ago, said: “I was never ever so glad to get out of that hell hole.
“We are now fighting to have our names removed from any terrorist databases and to clear our names.”
Peter, who has run 372 marathons worldwide, raising over £500,000, said that because Harold had booked his holiday last June and he in April this year “it sent up red flags” with the Turkish authorities because Al Qaida operatives often worked in that way.
Suspicions may also have been raised because both had obtained new passports at the start of this year.
It didn’t take long for the Coleraine men to realise that once they had landed in Turkey their dream holiday would turn into a traumatic experience.
“When we arrived we were followed the whole week by plain clothes policemen,” Peter, a retired IT technician, claimed.
But it was when the pair were coming home in the early hours of Sunday, July 24 that the nightmare unfolded.
At first they were picked up with their luggage at the Ozka Hotel in a white limousine - an arrangement they assumed had been made by Thomas Cook.
The luxury white Mercedes vehicle had darkened windows complete with microphones and cameras and they were taken on a fightening 40-minute journey to another five-star hotel.
Peter recalled: “The driver took us all around the back streets of Kusadasi. I thought we were going to be taken out and shot.
“We never opened our mouths once because at that moment we were very, very scared.”
But just ten minutes before boarding their flight home from Izmir Airport police surrounded them with guns and accused them of discussing Al Qaida activities on the bus on the way there.
They said that 15 passengers had overheard them discussing a terrorist plot - even though Peter and Harold had been forced to sit separately at opposite ends of the busy tour bus.
Harold, who works as a storeman at Lynas Food Service in Coleraine, revealed: “The police said that these people had recorded our conversation on the mobile phones at 2.20am in the morning.”
Peter added: “Apparently we were supposed to be together talking about Al Qaida activities, blowing up the Twin Towers, putting a bomb on a plane from Izmir to Belfast and other Al Qaida activities.”
The two men were arrested after Harold had gone to the toilet at the airport and Peter had checked in and gone through passport control ahead of him. Police and security staff detained them for apparently acting suspiciously.
They had their boarding passes and passports confiscated and were taken for questioning in a detention room and threatened with imprisonment.
Peter said: “They said they were going to chuck us into prison for 20 years. They said they could do anything they wanted to us. Our whole world caved in.”
“We were facing 20 years in prison, it was like a scene from the film Midnight Express,” added Harold.
Shocked and frightened and denied food and drink during persistent questioning, Peter told the Turkish police: “We are innocent, you cannot do this, you cannot take away our human rights, you cannot deny us food and water.
“We stood up to the Turkish officials and theatened them that when we get home we were going to tell the world what had happened. We told them ‘you cannot label us terrorists, you have no evidence.’
Harold said: “I was in shock and Peter was strong at the the start but then he became sick and it was my turn to be strong.”
With their passports cancelled both men rang home to tell their families about their plight but worse was to come on the Monday morning when Peter became very ill.
“Due to the severe stress I started vomiting blood. Doctors at Izmir Airport detected that I had a haemorrage in my stomach,” explained Peter.
When he collapsed again he was rushed by ambulance to Izmir Hospital.
“They told me I had an aneurism of the heart, haemorraging of the stomach, gastroentereritis and severe blood disorders and that I was going to die.”
Terrified for their lives Harold helped Peter out a side door of the hospital which was being patrolled by gun-toting security guards.
“One of the shunts came out of my arm,” said Peter. “There was blood everywhere, I collapsed and these two men in the street helped me into a taxi and we went to the airport.”
There they met Josef Demir, head of the Military Security Police, who told them that they were innocent and it had all been a case of mistaken identity.
“He rang the British Consul and the tour operator Thomas Cook and said they had pulled out the wrong people,” said Peter.
“In the eyes of Thomas Cook we are still terrorists, we will never be able to travel with them again because of the apparent comments we made about Al Qaida. Thomas Cook did not want to know us.
“Yosef Demir told us “you are free, we cannot find anything on you, we have picked up the wrong people. We apologise but we cannot give you a written apology.”
The pair were also angry that the contents of their suitcases were confiscated and most of their clothing sprayed with chemicals to detect bomb-making substances - which again drew a blank with forensic tests.
After being apprehended they were blocked from making any phone calls back home, using the internet or withdrawing cash from ATM’s
“We could not do a thing, it was terrifying and we were helpless. We thought we were never going to get out of here, we are going to prison. We had no money, no food, no water, nothing,” said Peter.
Finally the pair were allowed to board a Turkish Pegasus Air flight to Stansted on Tuesday afternoon after three days with Peter still coughing up blood and in some distress.
They spent two days in London and lodged a complaint with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at Whitehall before finally flying home on a Flybe fight from Gatwick to Belfast on Thursday.
Both are now fighting to clear their names and are grateful to Peter’s neighbour, Brian McMullan and Harold’s sister, Linda Cooper for doing all they could do get them home.
“We came back into Northern Ireland like two scruffy vagabonds,” explained Peter. “We spent £1,000 trying to get home and all our clothes have been ruined.”
And Harold says that they both want a full apology: “We are still classed as terrorists and we will never travel with that tour operator again.”
A spokesperson for Thomas Cook said: “We have a zero tolerance policy in place when any passenger makes threatening comments.”
A Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesman confirmed that Peter and Harold had been in touch with the Foreign Office on July 24 while waiting to fly out of Izmir Airport.