One of the darkest legacies of the Turkish state's fight against the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the 1990's is the large number of enforced disappearances that took place in the predominantly-Kurdish southeast region. Human rights workers in the region working on the issue believe some 1,000 people were disappeared by suspected state actors during that time.
Until relatively recently, families of the Kurdish disappeared had little hope for finding answers to what happened to their relatives and little reason to believe justice would somehow be served in these cases. In the last few years, though, have given some hope that things might be changing, with victims' families, lawyers and civil society organizations in the southeast starting to push more openly for investigations into the fate of the disappeared and with the government showing some willingness to take a look at the dirty deeds that were committed in its name.
In a new report, Human Rights Watch takes a look at this issue by focusing on one of the first instances in which a Turkish military official was put on trial for suspected crimes committed during the 1990's, including the disappearance of several men. From HRW's report:
There were positive indications of change in 2009, however, when a remarkable trial began in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır of a gendarmerie officer, retired colonel Cemal Temizöz, three former PKK members turned informers, and three members of the “village guard” (local paramilitary forces armed and directed by the gendarmerie). The prosecution accused the defendants of working as a criminal gang involved in the killing and disappearance of twenty people in and around the Cizre district of Şırnak province between 1993 and 1995.
These twenty killings were just a tiny fraction of thousands of unresolved killings and enforced disappearances that took place in the area in this period, as well as many more in other provinces of the region and in some of Turkey’s largest cities. Nonetheless after years of impunity, the investigation and prosecution of these cases marked a significant milestone. Temizöz is the most senior member of the Turkish military ever to stand trial specifically for gross violations of human rights committed in the course of the conflict between the Turkish armed forces and the PKK.
The trial, which started in September 2009, offers an opportunity to examine the obstacles to securing accountability in Turkey’s domestic courts for state-perpetrated killings and disappearances in the mainly Kurdish-populated southeast of the country in the first half of the 1990s. In January 2012, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe described the trial as “a unique opportunity to shed light on a period of systematic human rights abuses in south-east Turkey, which feature prominently in the case-law of the ECtHR [European Court of Human Rights].”
As the report makes clear, while the Temizoz case represents an important breakthrough, it also helps illustrate some of the obstacles that stand in the way of those seeking to find justice regarding their missing relatives. An old law that puts a 20-year limitation on murder cases means that many crimes committed in the 1990's will end up not being investigated, despite the appearance of new evidence in these cases thanks to forensic work that's being done in the southeast. At the same time, as HRW documents in its report, many prosecutors remain either indifferent to the cases of the disappeared or are ill-equipped to deal with these complicated cases. Even worse, many families, witnesses and lawyers told HRW they had faced intimidation and attacks after they opened cases against the state. "The climate of fear among victims' relatives and witnesses persists to this day," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, HRW's Turkey researcher, at an Istanbul press conference today. "To give them the confidence to come forward, prosecutors and courts need to adopt more effective witness protection and a victim-centered approach to justice."
Complicating the search for answers and justice in the cases of the disappeared is the fact that clashes between the PKK and Turkish security forces are again on the rise. Ten Turkish soldiers and 20 PKK militants died in a firefight Sunday night, which was only the latest incident in what has been a particularly violent summer in the southeast. The concern among human rights activists is that as the "Kurdish problem" again starts to heat up, the growing violence could put an end to the state's willingness to solve the crimes committed in the 90's, something that in itself is an integral part of finding an answer to the Kurdish issue."It's an opportunity that needs to be grasped and it's important that it not be lost," said Aisling Reidy, HRW's senior legal advisor, about the effort to solve the cases of the Kurdish disappeared. "Justice and accountability is no longer an option, it's an obligation and something that the Turkish state owes its citizens."