ISTANBUL, Turkey — When the body of British reporter Jacqueline Sutton, 50, was found in a toilet cubicle in Istanbul’s main airport last weekend, Turkish authorities and media at first treated her death as suicide. But since then, several inconsistencies and bizarre circumstances surrounding the case have given way to the suspicion that something more sinister may have been going on.
Sutton, acting Iraq director for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), a London-based NGO, arrived in Istanbul from London on a Turkish Airlines flight around 10 p.m. local time last Saturday. Footage of surveillance cameras posted by Turkish media showed her walking through the transit area of Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport with a backpack and talking to airport officials at a desk. She was scheduled to travel on to Erbil in northern Iraq about two hours after her arrival from London, but she never boarded the plane.
According to Turkish media reports, Sutton missed her flight despite being paged over the airport’s loudspeaker system. Later, she was reportedly in tears when she was told by airline officials that she had to buy a new ticket and said she did not have the money. Her body was later found by three Russian tourists in a toilet in the departure terminal with her shoelaces tied around her neck and fastened to the toilet door. Turkish police ordered an autopsy, but there has been no information about its outcome.
Sutton’s death shocked her co-workers at IWPR and all who knew her. They said it was unthinkable that Sutton—who worked for the BBC and the United Nations in the past and had traveled to many dangerous places, spoke five languages and was studying for a Ph.D. in Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University—could have killed herself because she missed a flight.
Also, as it turned out, she did have the money to pay for a new flight from Istanbul to Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s northern Kurdish region. According to the Turkish Haberturk newspaper, €2,300 ($2,600) was found in her clothes. Books by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the founders of Communism, as well as copies of the Quran and of the Torah were also found in Sutton’s belongings, the daily reported.
“She was extremely bright, highly competent, and well able to handle herself in difficult environments, and she was universally loved,” IWPR Executive Director Anthony Borden said in a statement posted on the organization’s website. “We are in total shock.”
Sudipto Mukerjee, the country director of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Sierra Leone and a former colleague of Sutton’s, tweeted that he found it “very difficult to believe” that Sutton, a “seasoned traveler,” had committed suicide. Sutton’s brother Ian agreed. “There do seem to be some very odd circumstances,” he told the British Telegraph.
Christian Bleuer, a research fellow at the Austrian National University, tweeted that Sutton had been the “toughest woman u could meet." He added: “I’m not into conspiracies, but if the Turks say a security camera at Istanbul-Ataturk was ‘malfunctioning,’ then Jacky Sutton was murdered.”
The Telegraph quoted Hiwa Osman, a friend of Sutton’s in Iraq, as saying he suspected foul play as well. “Unless there is clear evidence she committed suicide, she was definitely murdered.”
The IWPR helps local journalists in conflict zones. Sutton had just been to London to attend a memorial service for her predecessor as IWPR’s Iraq director, Ammar Al Shabander, who was killed in a suspected bomb attack by the so-called Islamic State in Baghdad in May.
Rudaw, a news platform in Kurdish-administered northern Iraq, said Sutton had criticized the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and Daesh, for its treatment of women. In a Rudaw interview released after her death, Sutton spoke about Muslim women from Western societies joining ISIS in Syria and Iraq, “where they are simply treated as object of male power,” adding that the jihadists had modified their propaganda accordingly. “It gives them a sense that they will have some kind of power relationship with the men on an equal footing, that they will be honored and respected as mothers, brides, wives and sisters,” Sutton said. “The reality of course is very, very different.”
In an email from northern Iraq to her friend Amanda Whitley in June, Sutton spoke of the danger posed by ISIS. “If Daesh wants to attack they will but it will take planning and I won’t be THE target,” Sutton wrote in the email, published by Whitley on her blog.
ISIS has kidnapped and killed several Western journalists and aid workers in Syria, but there is no evidence that the jihadists have anything to do with Sutton’s death in Istanbul. That doesn’t stop Turkish media from speculating that the terrorist militia might have killed her. “Did ISIS execute Jacky Sutton?” the news platform Canli Haber asked in a recent headline.