Sezin Öney
Nov 28 2017

Portrait of the week: Tahir Elçi, "A barrier against lawlessness in lawless lands"

Exactly two years ago, Tahir Elçi, one of Turkey’s most prominent human rights lawyers and defenders was murdered. He was shot in the head on a street in the city of Diyarbakır, the largest city in the predominantly Kurdish southeast.

He had just finished holding an impromptu press conference in the narrow streets of the ancient centre of the city, the Sur district, when a gunfight broke out between a gunmen and security forces.

The gunman, said to be from the armed separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), disappeared into the narrow alleys and government statements indicated he was the culprit. A policeman was also killed in the exchange of fire.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared he was saddened by Elçi's death and the then prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, vowed to find the assailants and resolve the case.

But the circumstances of the killing remain unclear and the investigation stalled almost as soon as it began.

Elçi's brother, Ahmet Elçi, said after his brother's death "only one thing is clear, and it is that (he) was chosen as a target and killed by the state".

In the days before his killing, Elçi featured prominently in the news as an opponent of curfews in southeastern cities and security operations in which police clashed with the PKK youth wing. Scores of civilians were to die in the urban fighting that followed.

Elçi was critical of both the PKK’s erection of barricades and trenches inside towns and the state’s security operations within heavily populated urban areas.

He called for an immediate return to dialogue and peace negotiations that began in 2009 and lasted up to July 2015.

Some 40 days before his death, Elçi appeared on a popular political talk show on the news channel CNN Türk.

Pressed by the host to state whether he thought PKK was a terror organisation, Elçi said it was an armed political movement that had at times committed terrorist acts.

Elçi swiftly became the target of a media campaign and was charged with “making terrorist propaganda” for his statement. His last days were poisoned with death threats, legal pressures and a media campaign to smear his name.

His last words in his outdoor press conference before the iconic "Four-legged Minaret" of the 16th century Sheikh Matar Mosque were: "We don't want clashes, guns and operations in this ancient place".

Tahir Elci, the head of Diyarbakir Bar Association, speaks to the media shortly before being killed in Diyarbakir, Turkey, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015. He was shot while he was making a press statement in front of a historical mosques damaged during fightings between Kurdish rebels and security forces. (IHA agency via AP)

After his death, three-quarters of the ancient Sur district were razed as the military used tanks and artillery to combat PKK militants.

It is a great irony and tragedy that Elçi was the victim of an unresolved murder as he spent much of his career following up such cases as a human rights lawyer since the early 1990s.

Elçi was born in a small village in the southeastern province of Cizre in 1966. He grew up speaking Kurdish and, like many people in the region, did not speak Turkish until he started primary school. But he went on to study law at Dicle University in Diyarbakır, graduating in 1991. His career choice was shaped by his brothers who were already politically active in the left wing of Kurdish politics.

But while he was still a student, Elçi was detained and said he was tortured, but the experience appears to have made him defiant and directed him towards human rights law.

Elçi was again detained in 1993 by the notorious Gendarmerie Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism (JİTEM) and again said he was tortured while imprisoned for three months as part of the so-called "Lawyers' Case".

Elçi was among a group of lawyers detained by the gendarmerie on charges of aiding a terror organisation. Activists said the case was an attempt to curb the right to defence in human rights cases.

After his release, Elçi continued to concentrate on representing families in cases of alleged human rights violations; including torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.  

Elçi was also among the first lawyers from Turkey to take cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), teaching himself English for the purpose. Turkey has had to pay large amounts of compensation as a result of cases judged by the ECHR. Some have argued that the cases saved lives as after 2000, the security forces began to exercise restraint.

A woman mourns in front of a portrait of late Kurdish lawyer Tahir Elci, at the cemetery in Diyarbakir, on November 28, 2016 during a ceremony in tribute to the lawyer who was shot dead the previous year. AFP / ILYAS AKENGIN

At Elçi's funeral, presidents of bar associations across Turkey joined the procession. Even the head of Turkey's Bar Associations Metin Feyzioğlu, a far-right nationalist, was among those carrying the coffin.

Elçi had a son, Arin, and a daughter, Nazenin. His wife Türkân Elçi said he was her "soul mate". Both Nazenin and Türkân Elçi are studying for law degrees even through they say their belief in the rule of law and justice has been shaken.

Türkân Elçi wrote to the left-wing magazine New Internationalist:

[I described] a short chronicle of my husband’s death. But the full story of the killings on our soil is a much longer story. It is a story of a land turned into a battleground. A place where death rather than the right to life, has become sanctified and where the actions of the killers have dragged the innocents into their macabre game.

By killing those who stand against war, they made us part of it.

Tahir Elçi was targeted by warring parties while trying to explain the sanctity of the right to life within an orphaned society that is struggling to extricate itself from the tentacles of violence.

His was a small dissenting voice speaking out against the violence. A voice that the fighters did not want to hear. His voice struck a note of harmony that was somehow discordant with their violent overture: a dissonant overture pleasing to their tone deaf ears alone.

Tahir’s leitmotif - ‘that people should not die, that humanity should not be destroyed, that fighting should end’ – had to be extinguished. When it was, there was more violence. In the days after his murder, entire cities were destroyed and people whose names are not even recorded died horrific deaths.

In these lawless lands he managed to stand like a barrier against the lawlessness.

He wiped the dust from stacks of files on enforced disappearances and tried to bring those responsible to justice in international courts. But his struggle against impunity made him a target for some who did not want justice to be done.

Tahir was killed in front of everyone’s eyes, gunned down while the cameras rolled. But the hopes of those who demand peace did not die with him. Instead his loss has strengthened our belief that, in order to create a better world and look toward tomorrow with hope, we must overcome the imaginary boundaries that divide us. We must stand shoulder-to-shoulder beside the oppressed and help the victims awaken from their winter sleep.

Turkey's seemingly never endless State of Emergency imposed since the July 2016 Coup Attempt, deepened the winter sleep that began with Tahir Elçi's with human rights abuses hitting historic highs. Elçi's deceased figure continues to be "a barrier against the lawlessness in lawless lands". Beyond his grave, Tahir Elçi is a glimmer of hope for a future that rule of law shall be restored; we owe him that.