Security force vehicles killing civilians with impunity in southeast Turkey

Turkish authorities are turning a blind eye to a rising number of accidental deaths caused by armoured vehicles in Kurdish-majority regions, leaving grieving families with little chance of finding justice. 

A report by the non-governmental Human Rights Association’s (İHD) Diyarbakır chapter found that 36 civilians, including 16 under 18 years of age, were killed by armoured vehicles in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority eastern and south-eastern regions from 2008 to 2018, while 85 people were injured. Just in the past three years in Diyarbakır, 12 civilians, including two children, were killed by armoured vehicles.

Turkey has not documented any efforts to prevent further deaths. Armoured vehicle drivers get off scot-free or with minimal sentences that are often deferred, while grieving loved ones, rather than receiving justice, can face a bill from the state for vehicular damages.

On June 19, 2017, three civilians, including 10-year-old Zilan Yamankılıç, lost their lives when a police armoured vehicle crashed into their bus in Diyarbakır. Driving home from her memorial service a few days later, five members of Zilan’s extended family lost their lives in another crash, marking the highest death toll in a single accident involving an armoured vehicle.

A preliminary report on the first accident said the cause had been a flat tyre on the armoured vehicle. The vehicle’s driver, Burhan Kolbaşı, was detained, then immediately released after giving a deposition. 

A gendarmerie report found Kolbaşı fully to blame for the crash, but another by the Ankara Forensics Institute stated the cause as a flat tyre. An expert at Istanbul Technical University wrote a third report, saying the sharp object that had caused the flat tyre had been to blame for the accident, not the police officer.

Based on the latter two reports, the Diyarbakır court dismissed the Yamankılıç family’s case against the governorate and ordered them to pay court expenses. That case is currently at an appeals court. 

Two years later, Diyarbakır’s chief prosecutor defied expectations and charged the driver with multiple counts of manslaughter. Kolbaşı faces up to 15 years in prison. 

The security forces’ driver in the second accident, in which a Cobra-type armoured vehicle crashed into a car returning from Zilan’s memorial service, killing five people, was released from custody in less time than it took to remove bodies from the wreckage.

The gendarmerie report said the civilian driver of the car, Fikri Demirbaş, had primarily been at fault for crossing lanes, while the AV driver, Officer Nuh İpek, was partially at fault for speeding. The report discounted the tyre tracks from the armoured vehicle that were found in the civilian car’s lane. Onboard cameras were not recording at the time of the accident due to a malfunction, the gendarmerie said. 

The Ankara Forensics Institute returned with another report, saying Officer İpek was absolutely not to blame for the crash, drawing an objection from the family’s lawyer. This brought the case to the forensics institute in Istanbul, which issued a similar report.

Lice’s chief public prosecutor still charged the officer with five counts of manslaughter. But the charges were dismissed in Diyarbakır and the case was thrown out, as expert reports said İpek was not responsible, putting the full blame for the crash on the deceased Demirbaş. 

Then Diyarbakır police sent a notice to Demirbaş’s heirs demanding 250,000 euros for damage to the 350,000-euro vehicle. 

“They killed my husband, now they send me the invoice. Who would accept that?” said Fikri Demirbaş’s wife of 38 years, Halime Demirbaş, who with her eight children has fallen on hard times since her husband’s death.

The family has not paid, and has been warned they will face trial as a result. Halime said she believes the camera on the vehicle was recording during the accident, but the footage has been concealed. 

The Demirbaş family’s lawyer, Velat Bozhan, believes the family has been denied due process, from the forensics reports onward.

“If there was video (of the crash), we could have seen what happened,” he said. ”[Without it], it is nearly impossible to state fault with either party with any certainty.”

Bozhan criticised the collection of evidence for the case, saying the court had unfairly rejected submissions made by the family. He said the lack of evidence gathered initially meant it was vital for the scene of the accident to be re-examined again, and that the armoured vehicle’s hard disks must be reviewed to recover any data that could shed light on what happened.

Regardless of the exact circumstances of the accident that killed Demirbaş, the armoured vehicles should not be cruising Turkish roads in the first place, said Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV)’s Diyarbakır representative, Barış Yavuz. 

The armoured vehicles are made for operations, not regular driving in urban traffic as visibility is low due to their cabin designs, according to the lawyer. Additionally, drivers often lack the proper training to safely drive among regular traffic, he said.

These incidents are reported as regular traffic accidents, but more extensive statistics should be kept for vehicle specifications, driving conditions and drivers’ training levels for specific vehicles, he added. 

“If armoured vehicles are treated like ordinary cars, then this beast of a machine is left at no fault at all, and that creates impunity. The drivers turn malicious as they understand they won’t face consequences,” Yavuz said.