Turkey in search of justice five years after Ankara bombing

The families of the 103 victims killed in the 2015 Ankara train station bombing and representatives from NGOs faced police intervention as they gathered to commemorate the victims of the attack in the Turkish capital, Mezopotamya agency reported on Saturday.

Police battered and detained at least 11 people following negotiations by opposition deputies from the main Republican People’s Party (CHP) and pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) to hold the march, despite being told by Ankara police that the event would not be permitted due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Police intervention on mourners
Police intervention on mourners in Ankara's Ulus district

Mourners formed a human chain against the police intervention and stopped traffic on the main road in the city’s Ulus district.

Detainees were released later in the day, but may face charges of resisting arrest, Mezopotamya said.

“The head of Ankara police’s public safety department openly threatened us today,” one of the detainees, youth organiser Şamil Parlak, said following his release. “He told us that they would not let us walk these streets (again). We have been on these streets for five years, fighting against these murderers.”

Youth groups at a memorial in Istanbul
Youth groups at a memorial in Istanbul

Five years ago, two suicide bombers affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS) detonated explosives in the middle of the crowd during a joint rally for peace organized by CHP, HDP and the Peace and Democracy Bloc made up of Turkey’s prominent trade unions and professional organisations.

The youngest victim among the 103 people killed in the bombing was eight years old.

The train station bombing followed a summer of unrest where ISIS detonated bombs in various provinces, including just before the June 7 elections in Turkey’s largest Kurdish-majority province Diyarbakır.

Five people were killed in the June 5 Diyarbakır bombing during a HDP rally, and some 400 were wounded.

“Those who paved the way for ISIS to commit the massacre five years ago, and those who obstructed the memorial today, attacking bombing veterans and families are the ones responsible for the massacre,” HDP said in a tweet.

At mid-day prayers, mourners held vigils in several cemeteries in Istanbul.

Mourners at a cemetery in Istanbul
Mourners at a cemetery in Istanbul

HDP Central Committee Member Ferhat Encü, speaking at one of the vigils, said the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had paved the way for the massacre, “as it tried to push for new elections with policies of war, after they lost power on June 7.”

The AKP had lost its parliamentary super majority for the first time in the June elections of 2015, when the HDP won 80 seats in parliament, becoming the country’s second largest opposition group after the CHP. A new election was held on Nov. 1 when parties in parliament failed to form a coalition government.

The summer of 2015 saw an escalation in violence for Turkey following two-and-a-half years of relative peace during the Solution Process between the government and the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), an armed group that has fought for Kurdish self-rule since 1984.

Violence escalated after the June 5 Diyarbakır bombing. On July 20, a group of left-wing activists were targeted in a suicide bombing in Suruç, along Turkey’s border with Syria. Thirty-four people were killed in the attack.

Two days later, two police officers were killed in the Ceylanpınar district of the neighbouring Şanlıurfa province. The PKK initially assumed responsibility for the attack, which led to the dissolution of the peace process. Later, officials from the PKK said further investigation revealed the attack to be an unrelated incident, but the decades-long conflict resumed shortly after, and continues to date.

The lawsuits on the bombings have been fraught with cries of injustice from rights advocates in Turkey. Human Rights Association (İHD) Istanbul Chapter Secretary Leman Yurtsever said during Saturday’s memorials:

“Evidence that emerged following the Diyarbakır and Suruç massacres were presented to the prosecutors, but information on the murderers’ identities and connections were disregarded, their connections (to ISIS) obscured, which allowed further massacres to occur in Ankara, Gaziantep and Istanbul.”

On Aug. 20, 2016, a year into the resumed hostilities, an ISIS suicide bomber targeted a Kurdish wedding in southeastern border province of Gaziantep, where ISIS cells were said to have a strong presence, killing 51 people and wounding at least 69.

“Those who planned these massacres,” Yurtsever said, “continued their activities throughout the legal process that ended in Aug. 3, 2018. They stopped the case from being considered a crime against humanity, and allowed those within the state with responsibility for the massacres to avoid trial.”

Leman Yurtsever
Leman Yurtsever

After several years of court proceedings, in June this year, an Ankara court acquitted suspected ISIS member Burhan Gök, who had connections to ISIS bombings in Turkey and Europe, citing reasonable doubt. The same court sentenced Orhan Gönder, the ISIS member who placed the explosives on the site in the Diyarbakır bombing, to four counts of life in prison.

Despite the court ruling for negligence on the part of police officials and members of the judiciary, no public servants were ever charged.

Immediately after the Ankara bombing in 2015, AKP’s justice minister at the time, Kenan İpek, had simply flashed as smile when a reporter asked whether any ministers were planning to resign.

“We are still detained, put on trial, and fired from our jobs for demanding peace,” Aysun Gezen, the Izmir chapter co-chair for public servants’ union KESK, said during a memorial for the Ankara massacre.

Especially after the state of emergency declared following the July 15, 2016 failed coup attempt, thousands of dissidents including opposition politicians, party members, civil society activists, journalists and academics were detained and imprisoned over often trumped-up terrorism charges as the AKP government cracked down on the Kurdish movement and left-wing activists, along with the Gülen movement.

Ankara holds the Gülen movement responsible for having orchestrated the failed putsch. HDP co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ remain in prison to date, as does philanthropist Osman Kavala.

“We wanted peace,” said Nesligül Sarıkaya, mother of Ankara victim Dilan Sarıkaya, said in a memorial in the southern Adana province. “Our children wanted peace. Who doesn’t?”

Saadettin Sert, brother of Ankara victim Fevzi Sert, asked how the bombers were able to avoid detection all the way from Gaziantep to the capital.

Check points on roads leading to the capital, a standard practice before every major rally, were removed for several hours leading to the bombing, victims’ lawyer Murat Kemal Gündüz told journalist İrfan Aktan in an interview.

Police in the eastern Tunceli province issued a warning on Sept. 17 that suicide bombers could target rallies, Gündüz said, but Ankara police did not share any information with the organisers. “There were no searches on site. Road check points were removed at midnight the day before, until 9 a.m.,” the lawyer said. “The suicide bombers entered Ankara at about 8:30 a.m.”

A report made public in July alleged that the government had at least partial prior knowledge of the Suruç plot as well, the Justice for Suruç Platform had announced.

The suicide bombers in Suruç and Ankara turned out to be brothers, Abdurrahman and Yunus Emre Alagöz respectively.

An 18-month confidentiality order was placed on the Suruç investigation’s findings at the time, which could have hindered the sharing of intelligence and information to possibly stop the Ankara attack before it happened.

Last year, workers’ unions and professional organisations organized a design competition for a monument to be placed on the site of the Ankara bombing. Architect Pınar Kesim Aktaş’s winning design, called “Timeless casing/Unfinished stories”, incorporated several gingko biloba trees in her collective memory space.

Gingko trees “even survived the Hiroshima bombing, they are resilient and long lived,” Aktaş told the advocacy group Centre for Truth, Justice and Memory. The trees shed their leaves in October, and when under attack, survive by flinging their seeds out to spread. “Bodies are casings for ideas. The explosion took away the bodies, but the ideas remain,” said the architect. “We wanted to create new casings to protect them.”

The project consists of brass sleeves around gingko trees, scattered about the station square. It is a location where people naturally congregate, and before the bombing, was an important host to many of the country’s significant political events.