Trial starts for murder of Kurdish lawyer in Turkey’s Diyarbakır

The trial for the killing of Tahir Elçi, former chairman of the Diyarbakır Bar Association, started on Wednesday in a Diyarbakır penal court, five years after the lawyer and human rights advocate was shot dead.

Three police officers are facing manslaughter charges in relation to the death of Elçi on Nov. 28, 2015, while a civilian named Uğur Yakışır faces three counts of first degree murder. The officers were not present at the courtroom, and told the court via videoconference that they wished to testify remotely, and Yakışır has an outstanding arrest warrant.

Elçi’s lawyers objected, and the current chairman of the Diyarbakır bar association Cihan Aydın was asked to leave the courtroom for disrupting the order. Riot police was called in, and Elçi’s lawyers motioned for recusal. 

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Aydın said, “They want to handle the trial without lawyers, that’s what they call a hearing.”

The case will go to a higher court to assess the motion, and trial will continue afterwards on March 3, 2021.

Tahir Elçi  was shot dead during a shootout between the police and unidentified gunmen in Diyarbakır’s Sur district, right after reading a press statement against gun violence in the historic quarters, in front of the famed Four Pillared Minaret that dates back to the 10th century.

The violence Elçi was speaking against came after the collapse of a peace process between Turkey and the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has been fighting for Kurdish autonomy since the 1980s and is designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union. The urban youth wing of the PKK had been clashing with security forces as part of a unilateral declaration of autonomy in several Kurdish-majority provinces.

“We don’t want weapons, clashes, or operations in this historic region that has been the cradle of many civilisations. We want this place to be free of wars,” Elçi had said minutes before his death.

The Diyarbakır Bar Association Elçi had been deliberately targeted, and called the incident an assassination. The bar later petitioned an inspection from the Britain-based Forensic Architecture research agency, whose report pointed to the officers on trial as the most likely culprits as they all had clear lines of fire and at least one of them openly fired shots in Elçi’s direction.

As a rights defender, Elçi had advocated for the families of the forcibly disappeared in the 1990s in Turkey, and won many cases on behalf of Kurdish families at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

A month before his death, during a televised discussion on CNN Türk, Elçi had said the PKK’s classification as a terrorist organisation was not correct in his opinion, and that the group would be better classified as an armed political movement. CNN Türk was issued a fine over Elçi’s comments, and the lawyer was detained briefly on charges of terrorist propaganda. He was targeted by right-wing groups who called him a terrorist and a traitor.  

 

“Tahir Elçi was an important advocate for peace, he put his life on the line for peace,” Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) deputy group chairman Saruhan Oluç told reporters, following Wednesday’s hearing.

The crime scene investigation had been insufficient, and the police officers on the scene never testified as suspects during the investigation, Oluç said.

“The court stalled for five years, giving the first signal that it aims for impunity for the perpetrators of the Tahir Elçi assassination,” Oluç said.

The casings for the bullet that killed Elçi and security camera recordings from a shop with a direct line of sight were among 40 pieces of evidence not collected during the investigation, according to court documents cited by Mezopotamya Agency. Recordings from the nearby post office’s cameras had a gap of 17 minutes, and four officers caught on other cameras as having fired their guns testified as witnesses, not suspects. The case file includes a secret witness testimony that accuses Yakışır of having shot Elçi while also killing two police officers, and being a member of the PKK.

“I am afraid the dues of the bullet will fall on the shoulders of the court,” Elçi’s widow Türkan Elçi said in a press statement after the hearing. “Justice must belong to us all.”

“I will not lose hope and wait for the day when some authority someday will have a conscience and work ethic and hand over the murderer to justice,” Türkan Elçi said, repeating her words on a petition to court five years ago.