Death of Kurdish rights defender unresolved two years on

Two years after the prominent Kurdish lawyer and rights activist Tahir Elçi was shot dead, Turkish authorities have not prosecuted anyone for the killing, even though it took place in front of television cameras as he spoke out against the destruction of an historic minaret.

When he was killed, Elçi, the head of Diyarbakır Bar Association, had been trying to broker a local ceasefire between the state and armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) separatists to stop the destruction of Diyarbakır, the biggest city in Turkey’s troubled mainly Kurdish southeast. Following orders from the PKK’s exiled leaders, the PKK’s youth wing declared autonomy in parts of the ancient city, built barricades and dug trenches to keep troops out.

“He was the mediator in talks between the PKK and the state in the early stages of digging trenches in Silvan, another part of Diyarbakır where it was stopped before developing,” said close friend Baki Demirhan, who held the microphone to Elçi as he spoke to the press, shortly before he was killed.

“If Elçi was alive, the war and destruction in the city centre would have been less,” Demirhan said.

Baki Demirhan
Baki Demirhan

After Elçi was shot on Nov. 28, 2015, fighting between troops and the PKK intensified in the narrow, winding streets of the historic Sur district of Diyarbakır, ringed by high black basalt city walls dating back to the Roman era. The fighting did not end until the following March by which time dozens of buildings had been flattened by army tank and artillery fire.

Elçi took peace doves to Sur with him, but they have flown away and apart from a couple of historic structures, the Hançepek area of Sur where he died has been flattened.

Authorities say 271 militants and 72 soldiers were killed in the fighting in Sur. Almost all of the neighbourhood’s roughly 24,000, mostly poor inhabitants, fled during the fighting, though some have begun to move back into their shattered homes.

A month before his death, Elçi was charged with terrorism offences for comments he made on a discussion programme on the CNN Türk news channel.

“Even if some of the PKK’s acts have a terrorist character, the PKK is an armed political movement,” said Elçi. “It is a political movement with political demands and with very strong support in society.”

Television pictures taken at the scene where he was shot showed two men emerging from a yellow taxi, shooting dead two policemen then running towards the place where Elçi had been talking to the press. Police opened fire on the fleeing men. But 12 seconds of footage, including the time when Elçi was killed, is missing, fellow lawyers said.

There were 28 police officers in the area on the day of killing and six of them admitted shooting towards the two escaping gunmen. However, none of the officers has been investigated for the killing.

Like many in Turkey’s southeast, Elçi was caught between the armed forces and the PKK, which took up arms in 1984. Over the years, moderate Kurdish voices have been eliminated and opinion has been polarised.

The U.S. embassy in Turkey called Elçi a “courageous defender of human rights”.

Before 2015 though, most of the fighting had taken place in the mountains of the region and its cities, though always tense, had been spared much of the violence. Elçi had been calling for the fighting to be taken away from the cities and civilian population centres.

“A new concept started after his killing; round-the-clock curfews were imposed and civilian killings increased,” Demirhan said. “The cities turned into rubble across the southeast. Tahir was trying to prevent this, therefore he called on the PKK and the state not to fight in cities.

“Everyday we thought it could not get any worse, but after his death it got worse and worse. I think Tahir took Sur and its doves with him. Sur and Tahir both lost their lives at around same time. The aim was to silence Kurdish intellectuals by his murder,” he said.

Demirhan said he and Elçi had both faced torture in Diyarbakır’s notorious prison where they were jailed in 1993 for defending the cases of PKK members.

“We all faced torture, but Elçi was having the most brutal time in the hands of Turkish police,” he said.

Another former head of Diyarbakır Bar Association, Mustafa Özer, said he and Elçi had often worked together defending civilians against persecution and investigating cases of torture.

“I was more like his brother,” said Özer, who survived an apparent attempt to kill him when his car was blown up.

Veteran Diyarbakır lawyer Fethi Gümüş said the state’s response to the PKK’s armed separatist campaign had changed over the three decades of the conflict.

“The state has shown itself in different forms,” he said. “In the military rule period of the 1980s critics were imprisoned, in the 1990s unresolved murders became common and now again prisons are full. Today there is a new development. There are economic attacks on those opposition voices resulting in them losing their jobs in government offices en masse. The state changes tactics each decade.”

The four-legged minaret, where Tahir Elçi was killed.
The four-legged minaret, where Tahir Elçi was killed.

Friends, colleagues and family are preparing to celebrate Elçi's life in a week of events including a documentary gala in Diyarbakır and a march in Istanbul.

After he was charged a month before his killing, Elçi received death threats which led to him suffering a heart spasm, his friend Demirhan said.

“Elçi leaned against the window of the airplane taking him to hospital in Ankara to have a heart operation, remembering his favourite candy floss as a child as he looked over the clouds,” Demirhan said. “He felt life was beautiful. It was the closest he felt to death, but he thought an ordinary death was not an appropriate end for him.”