Tahir Elçi was a father to children of forcibly disappeared, say his clients

Three years have passed since the President of Diyarbakır Bar Association, Tahir Elçi, was killed during a press statement to protect the historical Sheikh Matar Mosque, aka Four-Legged Minaret built in the 16th century and to keep the clashes between armed Kurdish rebels and the government forces away from the civilian areas. To commemorate Elçi, we wanted to interview his clients, who knew him intimately and considered him as a brother rather than their lawyer.

Almost all of his clients we interviewed, regardless of their ages, refer to Elçi as "brother Tahir'. One client says, "he (Elçi) died while trying to stop people from being killed." Another one believes that the course of the legal proceedings on his countless cases would be very different if he weren't assassinated.

Elçi, the president of the local bar association at the time of his death, was known as a fearless defender of the underprivileged. Elçi was well known for his human rights abuse cases at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on behalf of the Kurdish families many of which he had won.

Elçi was also famous for his defence of the forcibly disappeared dissidents and their families in the 1990s. He was always willing to take cases on human rights violations, extra-judicial executions and torture in detention cases.

One of the most critical cases of Elçi was the Kuşkonar massacre (aka the Kuşkonar and Koçağılı massacre) where the government forces killed 38 Kurdish villagers and destroyed two villages -Koçağılı and Kuşkonar near the province of Şırnak, in southeast Turkey. Government forces, in 1994, bombed the villages by combat aircraft, destroyed all the houses and killed even the farm animals.

Elçi filed a lawsuit against the government for violation of the right to life. The Turkish court rejected the motion on the grounds of prescription. For the next 20 years, Elçi appealed to Turkish courts and he appealed to the ECHR on behalf of the villagers in 2006. The Court, in 2013, ruled on behalf of the villagers and granted a total of 2,305,000 Euros for pain and suffering and 5,700 Euros for financial damages to the 38 applicants. 

"I miss him a lot," says one of the villagers from Kuşkonar, Abdullah Bozan. "Our village was bombed. No one wanted to take over our case, but he did. Even when we gave up, he didn't," he says. 

The former mayor of Idil district of Şırnak and lawyer Resul Sadak says that Elçi was a local hero and the only reason he wasn't elected member of parliament in 2002 election was the 10 percent election threshold. Sadak says Elçi appealed to the ECHR to remove the election threshold, but the court rejected the motion.

Sadak says Elçi was not just a very vocal human rights activist but a very competent human rights attorney as well, "He was an amazing lawyer, he volunteered to defend many students who could not afford to hire a defendant regardless of their political beliefs. He had a very close relationship with all of his clients and took many cases pro bono," Sadak says. 

Mustafa Akyol, the son of Abdurrahman Akyol who was murdered in 1995, just 150 metres away from his home in Cizre, says "he was a very very decent person,“ adding that Elçi treated him like a son rather than a client and felt their pain and suffering.

Akyol believes that Tahir Elçi's personality and beliefs were a chance not only for the Kurds but also for the Middle East: ’he believed in peaceful solutions. He was killed because he was brave enough to defend ordinary people against the government. He paid for his bravery."

Akyol describes Elçi as a humble man who didn't give up easily. "He was a brother for all of us. This country didn't understand his worth. He lived to help people," he says.

Tahir Elçi also represented Kurdish dissident writer and activist Musa Anter, who was assassinated by Turkish JITEM (Gendarmerie Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism, a controversial wing of the Turkish Gendarmerie) in September 1992. Anter's son, Dicle Anter, says that he was shocked when he heard the news. "He was one of the few lawyers who dared to take on unsolved murders," Anter says. He believes that his father's case took a turn for the worse after Elçi's passing. "Not only our case suffered, but the Roboski case as well," he says.

Nurettin Demirhan, son of M. Salih Demirhan who was murdered, says “I felt like I lost my brother. We couldn't find anyone to defend us. Tahir brother not only took the case but he even paid money out of his pocket" Demirhan says. "I was 12 when my father was killed. Tahir brother was the father of the orphaned children whose fathers were victims of unsolved murders. He helped people to seek justice. "

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.