On November 28, Kurds in Turkey lost their greatest human rights lawyer, Tahir Elci. The Kurdish township, Cizre in Turkey’s Kurdistan, where he was born in 1966, has for decades been exposed to state violence.


Under the guise of «fighting against Kurdish terrorists» — Turkey’s typical excuse for murdering Kurds and destroying their homeland — the residents of Cizre have been subjected to countless human rights abuses: torture against civilians, extrajudicial murders, forced displacements, and «disappearances.» All of Cizre’s villages — like many in other Kurdish towns — were attacked and forcibly evacuated by the Turkish military in 1990s.

While working as a lawyer in Cizre in 1990s, Elci was arrested, tortured by Turkish «security» forces, and the recipient of repeated death threats. He moved to Diyarbakir, where he continued working as a human rights lawyer. As chairman of Diyarbakır Bar Association, he tried to be there as the lawyer for the victim or the victim’s family.[1]

Elci also served as the lawyer of the Diyarbakir KCK (a group of communities in Kurdistan) during trials in which hundreds of Kurdish politicians, mayors, activists, journalists, doctors, university students, children and others were arrested beginning between 2009 and 2012. Elci tried to shine light on the crimes Turkey has committed in Kurdistan: again, torture, unlawful and arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances, forced displacements, murders, massacres, bombings, burned down and forcibly evacuated villages. Elci also helped victims to find justice both at Turkish courts and at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). [2]

For decades, it was impossible to bring Turkish military personnel or other state authorities to Turkish courts. Before the negotiation process between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) began around 2009, Turkish military personnel had full immunity for the crimes they committed against the Kurds. The Turkish armed forces were like the Gods of Turkey — extremely unjust and merciless against the Kurds. The armed forces brutally murdered or tortured Kurds wholesale, sometimes dumping the corpses into wells or dousing them in acid and throwing them into fields.

No one could bring these men to account. Those who sought help from the police or gendarmerie could also be exposed to torture, rape or even murder.

It was for that reason so many violations of human rights in Kurdistan could be brought to court only decades after they were committed. To this day, no one has ever been punished. The immunity of state authorities including «security» officials in Turkey, continues. Human rights cases are dismissed by the courts, one by one.

In such a climate of fear, Elci had the moral courage to defend the victims and seek justice for them, especially after a series of massacres: the Lice Massacre, the Cizre/Cemal Temizoz Massacre, the Kuskonar and Kocagili Massacre, and the Roboski Massacre.[3]

It was a statement Elci made live on CNN Turk on October 14 that marked the beginning of the end of his life.

On a debate program, the topic of which was something completely different, he was asked by a Turkish ultra-nationalist whether the PKK was a terrorist organization. Elci replied: «The PKK is not a terrorist organization. Even if some of the PKK’s acts have a terrorist character, the PKK is an armed political movement. It is a political movement that has political demands and a serious public support.»

While others involved in terrorism could try to make the same claim, whether true or not, should they be murdered for just saying that? Elci was a peace activist, not a terrorism apologist. He criticized some acts of the PKK for their treatment of civilians. The PKK and other groups, such as the Palestinian Authority (PA), are also worlds apart in terms of their charters, ideologies and acts. If someone asked you a question about the PA on national TV, you could express your point of view. You would not be murdered. But for a comment in Turkey about the PKK, most probably Turkish nationalists, who make up the majority in Turkey, would try to arrest or murder you.

Elci criticized the other participants of the program for being against the negotiation process between the Turkish government and the PKK. Evidently those remarks made him a «criminal.» On October 19, a few days after making these statements, an arrest warrant was issued against Elci. On October 20, at the Diyarbakir bar association, he was detained by police in armored vehicles.

«Because of a statement, a bar president is arrested. This is a dramatic moment for the freedom of expression and democracy in Turkey. Right now, a bar president is arrested from a bar association due to his remarks,» Elci said.

As part of his defense, he stated:

«That the civilian figures like us — in the midst of all our efforts — are immediately exposed to criminal proceedings and a warrant, due to a statement made on a TV channel, constitutes a huge blow to resolving this issue through peaceful means.

«I used my right to free speech that is guaranteed in the constitution and international treaties. While I use this right, I do not have to agree with the way the official ideology of the state or an ultra-nationalist political party expresses and defines issues or phenomena.

«My own way of expression or defining might offend the government or some groups in the society. It can even shake them. But that is why the freedom of expression exists. If I — as a civilian who lives in the middle of such a heavy issue and as the head of a very important trade body — cannot express myself freely and cannot utter a view or comment different from the official ideology, how will we resolve such a historic and social issue?»

Elci also pointed out the double standards of the Turkish government regarding different armed organizations:

«Hamas, one of the Palestinian organizations, is recognized as a terror organization by the U.S. and the EU. But the government of the Republic of Turkey officially hosts Khaled Mashaal, the leader of this organization, and applies a state protocol for him as if he were a head of state — let alone recognizing Hamas as a terror organization. More importantly, our Prime Minister Davutoglu has said that he does not see ISIS, which the entire world sees as a barbaric and savage organization, as a terror organization.»

Elci also explained in detail his efforts of making both sides (the Turkish side and the Kurdish PKK) silence the guns and reach a democratic resolution.

Elci was released that same day, with a ban on traveling abroad. The prosecutor demanded a 7.5 year prison sentence for him as punishment for his remarks.

After his release, Elci said that he had received countless death threats on social media and the phone. «They describe killing me,» he said in an interview with Channel 4.

«Particularly, on social media, I got hundreds of tweets, which wished for my killing, and in some tweets, they described how they would kill me; they gave details of the killing of me. We got maybe tons of phone calls».

When the correspondent asked him if Turkey is a dangerous place when you cannot speak without receiving death threats, he responded: «Normally, it is not so dangerous but when you are talking about some sensitive problem, such as the Armenian genocide, the PKK, terrorism, some taboo of the official ideology, if you try to question some red line of the government or of the state, it is trouble.»

Elci also said in an interview with the newspaper Agos that after his appearance on the debate program, he had been exposed to a smear campaign: «I expressed a sociological observation [regarding the PKK] as a response to the remarks made by a representative of an ultra-nationalist political party who was making propaganda. That they are so violently clamping down on me because of that shows that the government has lost its composure. And this is a very dangerous situation.»

The TV channel that hosted Elci was punished. On November 12, Turkey’s Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTUK) fined CNN Turk 225,000 euros for Elci’s remarks on that debate program.

On 28 November, Elci held a press conference, in which he spoke about a historic minaret that had been damaged as a result of the military attacks carried out during the curfew imposed by the government just days before in Sur, a district of Diyarbakir. And in his last public speech, called for an end to violence between the Turkish state and the Kurdish PKK.

«Years ago, we watched in dismay the scenes of how the Taliban bombed the Buddha temple in Afghanistan. In the last few years, we have watched in worry and pain how the barbaric group called ISIS has assassinated and bombed the historic accumulation of humanity in Palmyra, in Mosul, in Shengal, the land of Yazidis. As the people of Turkey, we always wished that those things would remain far from us. But unfortunately in a very short time, similar attempts have been made against our historic values and places.»

He then went on to say that the historic bell-tower minaret, built in the pre-Islamic era and unique to Anatolia, had been damaged by gunshots two days earlier. «We would like to make an open call from here: We do not want arms, clashes, operations in this area, which is a joint site of humanity and which has hosted countless civilizations. Let wars, clashes, guns and operations be away from this area.»

A few minutes later, he was killed with one bullet to his head.

Tahir Elci (center, wearing tie), moments before he was murdered. (Image source: Voice of America)

The video of the shooting shows that the bullets fired by police officers at two persons running away at close-range had no effect, and that one of the police officers switched and then hid the gun he was using (possibly loaded with blanks) with another weapon from his pocket. Then he started shooting at where Elci was standing. Then we see the dead body of Elci on the ground.

It appeared to many as if there may have been an attempt by the Turkish police to make the murder appear as if it had been «an attack committed by the PKK in a shootout between the Turkish police and some groups affiliated with the PKK.» After the murder, Turkey’s Prime Minister Davutoglu declared, «The gun belongs to the PKK members.»

Prof. Umit Bicer , an expert on forensic science, said in televised comments that the bullet must have come from where the police officers were.[4]

Elci was not the first leading activist or Kurdish lawyer murdered in Kurdistan.[5]

The vice-president of the Human Rights Association (IHD), and a prominent Kurdish human rights lawyer, Eren Keskin, said in an interview on IMC TV regarding Elci’s murder that,

«This attack has been committed against Kurdistan and the Kurdish people. I feel as if I am in 1992. Back then, we received the death news of our friends every single day. And now we have received the death news of Tahir. These murders, known as ‘murders by unknown assailants,’ are usually all the work of the Special Forces Command or the Counter-Guerrilla [affiliated with the Turkish Armed Forces]. The government has made a deal with this structure. This decision [to murder Elci] has been made jointly with the government.»

Keskin added that ever since Elci made his statements on live TV, she had been uneasy. «We started to wait for this consequence ever since Tahir said on TV that ‘the PKK is not a terrorist organization.’ All of us, Keskin’s Kurdish colleagues, are waiting for the same consequence for ourselves. Everybody is thinking: How long will we stay alive?»

On the day of Elci’s murder, the prosecutor’s office in Diyarbakir issued a gag order on the investigation.

A lawyer, Ahmet Ozmen, commented: «Since the very beginning of the investigation, despite our repeated requests, the complete file has not been revealed to us. Although there has been no legal decision made, a de facto confidential status has been applied to the case. The parts of the reports and documents of the investigation that have been provided show that it is not being carried out in an effective manner.»

After Elci’s murder, the governor office in Diyarbakir announced a curfew in the town of Sur, the place Elci was killed. The pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions’ Party (DBP) called on its members to carry out demonstrations in protest of the murder. But the police used pepper spray and water cannons on the crowd who wanted to march.

In Istanbul, as well, the members of the bar association wanted to march in protest in the city center. First, the police did not allow them to; then attempted to disperse the crowd with tear gas and water cannons.

On December 1, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) at the Turkish parliament filed a motion demanding an investigation into the murder of Elci. The motion was rejected by the votes of the MPs of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), an opposition party.

If Turkey truly aimed to achieve a just peace with the indigenous Kurds in Kurdistan, it could have respected a free, informed and constructive debate on all of the aspects of the issue.

But when one wants to talk about the Turkish history or state institutions in a critical way or just differently from the official state ideology, he is discouraged from doing so by the Turkish penal code.

According to the article 301, those who «denigrate the Turkish nation, the state of the Turkish Republic, the Grand Assembly of Turkey, the judicial institutions, the military or police organizations of the state» shall receive a prison sentence.

The only way people in Turkey are allowed to talk and write about the Kurdish PKK is to condemn, curse and dehumanize it.

Kurdish organizations, however, are ready and willing to talk with Turks and their state authorities and reach a humanitarian and non-violent resolution.

But as Turkey has proven one more time with the murder of a peace activist, it evidently does not aim to settle this issue justly or democratically. Ever since the establishment of the Turkish Republic, it makes no distinction between those engaging in armed struggle, legal politics or even peace activism. Apparently, all of the Kurds demanding national rights are enemies in the eyes of the Turkish state.

All one has to know about a country is if its dissenters are allowed to live or are assassinated. In the civilized world, people respond to words with words. A civilized state would protect free speech and its citizens’ right to life.

Elci spoke his mind — without calling for violence. He did not incite hatred or murder. He dedicated his entire life to reaching a peaceful and democratic resolution for the issue of Kurdistan.

But Turkey gave its usual response: intimidation and murder. Turkish authorities seem to have wanted to give the message to all Kurds that, «If you say things about the PKK or the Kurdistan issue that the state does not approve of, you will end up like Tahir Elci.»

Who is the real criminal?

Uzay Bulut, born and raised a Muslim, is a Turkish journalist based in Ankara.

[1] His defendants included:

  • The family Medeni Yildirim, 18, murdered in Diyarbakir by Turkish soldiers in 2013.
  • The family of Nihat Kazanhan, 12, murdered this year by Turkish police in Cizre, after families had been able to return there in 2009.
  • Ahmet Ozden, 39, tortured while in detention on March 31, 1993 in the Kurdish province of Batman.
  • Abdulcelil Imret, the board member of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HADEP), who was arrested and exposed to mistreatment on January 16, 1998 in the province of Batman.
  • Behice Alkin, 11, who lost a leg after stepping on a mine in the Kurdish province of Sirnak on May 13, 1996.

See the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) about the case Ahmet Ozden, who was defended by Tahir Elci. The Court convicted Turkey’s State Security Court for its lack of independence and impartiality.

See the judgment of the ECHR for the case of Abdulcelil Imret: «Imret v. Turkey (no. 42572/98).» The ECHR convicted Turkey for violating Imret’s right to liberty and security as well as his right to a fair hearing within a reasonable time. Imret’s lawyer at the ECHR was Tahir Elci. The court also convicted Turkey’s state security court for its lack of independence and impartiality.

Tahir Elci brought Behice Alkin’s case to the ECHR. The court convicted Turkey for the excessive length of the proceedings.

[2] To read more about the impunity of Turkish military authorities and obstacles before justice in Turkey, please see: «Time for Justice: Ending Impunity for Killings and Disappearances in 1990s Turkey,» Human Rights Watch, September 3, 2012.

[3] During the Lice Massacre, on October 22, 1993, 16 Kurds were murdered in Lice, Diyarbakir, by the Turkish military. Many homes and offices were burned to the ground. Hundreds of people were forced to flee. The trial was able to start only 21 years later. Elci was the lawyer of the families of the murdered. During the trial he said, «After we learned that the defendant would not come to the trial today, we told the court that they did not have the intention of restoring justice, that we had lost our trust in them, and that they were not impartial. And we demanded they change the judge.» The trial is still ongoing. The next court date is set for is December 24.

During the Cizre/Cemal Temizoz Massacre, between 1993 and 1995, in the Cizre town of Sirnak, 21 Kurds were arrested who then «disappeared,» apparently murdered while in detention. Eyewitnesses in Cizre and said that the senior Turkish colonel, Cemal Temizoz, then gendarmerie commander, was responsible for the killings. The first trial, which came to be known as the «Temizoz trial,» was finally held 22 years later. On November 5, 2015, at the end of 47 trials, in which Elci served as the lawyer for the victims’ families, all of the defenders were acquitted.

During the Kuskonar and Kocagili Massacre, on March 26, 1994, Turkish military aircraft bombed two villages in the Kurdish province of Sirnak — Kuskonar and Kocagili. They killed dozens of the inhabitants, injured others and destroyed most of the property and livestock. Elci again served as the lawyer of the victims’ families before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The ECHR convicted the Turkish military in 2013 of being responsible for bombing the villages. The court added that as the majority of the men from the villages were out working in the fields, most of the victims had been women, children or the elderly.

See the press release of the ECHR: «Turkish military responsible for bombing civilians in 1994; State must carry out effective criminal investigation,» ECHR 332 (2013), 12.11.2013.

In 2014, a year after the ruling of the ECHR, the incident was finally brought to court in Turkey — 20 years after it took place. The victims’ families were again represented by Elci. The Turkish military prosecutors, however, knew better than the ECHR. Due to «the statute of limitation,» the lawsuit was canceled.

During the Roboski Massacre, on December 28, 2011, Turkish F-16 fighter-bombers launched a five-hour long airstrike on Roboski, during which 34 civilians, were killed, including 17 children, some as young as 12.

For three years, Elci struggled to bring the cases to court, but in January 2014, the Turkish military prosecutor’s office dismissed the investigation into the Roboski airstrike.

Elci also attended the commemoration ceremonies for the 1915 Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocide, and held public speeches to raise awareness about the issue. He called on the Turkish government to recognize the genocide and return the citizenship and property rights of genocide victims and their families.

In a speech Elci made earlier this year in Diyarbakir, on behalf of the Diyarbakir branch of the Human Rights Association on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, he called on the Turkish government «to stop denying the Armenian genocide and apologize for it; to return the citizenship rights of the victims and their families; to take steps to help them return to their historic lands; to return all of the seized property to victims’ families; to remove the names of the perpetrators of genocide from all public places including schools, boulevards, streets, squares etc.; to name public places after the victims of the genocide; to stop the disinformation disseminated through schools, curricula, mass media, and several state institutions; to recognize the denial of the genocide as a «hate crime;» to erect a monument of «Never Again» in the memory of massacred peoples in order to share the pain of the genocide victims.»

[4] «When we analyze in the autopsy the direction from which the bullets came, the positions of other people there, the comments of the lawyers of the Diyarbakir bar association on the incident, although it is not completely certain yet, we can say that they all reach a joint conclusion. They all agree that — although it is a rough evaluation — the direction of the shooting, the wound in Elci’s body and where he fell show that the killing was done by a bullet not from somewhere else in the street, but by bullets of the police, and from where the police were standing.

«As in most political murders,» he said, «we see that the security officials there did not show any effort or reflex to take precautions to protect an important and already targeted lawyer.»

[5] On July 5, 1992, Vedat Aydin, a prominent Kurdish politician, lawyer and human rights activist, was taken from his home by men who introduced themselves as police officers. He never returned. The police did not admit that they had detained him. Two days later, his dead body, covered with signs of torture, was found at a roadside outside of Diyarbakir.

His skull had been fractured, his legs broken, and his body held fifteen or sixteen bullet wounds.

The people attending Aydin’s funeral were exposed to violence. The state «security» forces opened fire directly into the funeral cortege and killed 14 people. More than 100,000 people took to the street to protest the murders. (from: «The Kurdish Question in Turkey: New Perspectives on Violence, Representation and Reconciliation,» by Cengiz Gunes, Welat Zeydanlioglu, Routledge, 2013.)

In 1993, Turkey’s constitutional court closed down Aydin’s party, the People’s Labor Party (HEP). No one has been charged with slaying Aydin or those who attended the funeral.

The next target was Musa Anter, 72, and a prominent Kurdish politician and journalist, who had spent more than 11 years in Turkish prisons for pro-Kurdish activities. He was shot dead in September 1992 while attending a festival in Diyarbakir.

Years later, Elci became the lawyer of his family. Elci said that the trial and investigation into the murder of Anter remained flawed. He accused Turkish authorities of whitewashing defendants, who include former security officials. Two years later, Elci himself would be the next target.

A year later, another Kurdish human rights lawyer and politician, Sevket Epozdemir, 50, was murdered by Turkish «security» forces. He was killed after being kidnapped on the way home from his office on November 25, 1993 in the Kurdish town of Tatvan. His dead body, also covered with signs of torture, had been thrown at the side of a road outside his town. Like Tahir Elci, he was also murdered by one gunshot to his head.

Epozdemir had also appeared as the lawyer for the family of Ferhat Tepe, a Kurdish journalist murdered while in detention on July 28, 1993.