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An Assassination in Turkey: the Killing of Tahir Elci

Istanbul, Turkey.

Turkey is once more in crisis. A leading pro-Kurdish lawyer has been killed. The streets fill once more with protestors.

Tahir Elci, Chairman of the Diyarbakir Bar Association and a respected human rights lawyer, was killed on Saturday in Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey. “We don’t want weapons, clashes and military operations in the birthplace and home of many civilizations,” he said at a press conference before he was shot. Violence in Diyarbakir had damaged many historical places in the city and in the surrounding region. The climate of war between the State and the Kurdish groups had been exacerbated since the June elections. Hundreds of people had died, including children. Many majority Kurdish cities – Nusaybin, Cizre, Sur – are under curfew. Elci had called upon both sides for a ceasefire.

Instead, Elci fell to the guns. His death was videotaped. Who shot Elci? It is still not clear.

People in Turkey are used to seeing such images every decade. Turkey’s history is one of suppressed political murders. In 1989, Musa Anter, a Kurdish writer, poet and journalist, was killed by Abdulkadir Aygan, a surrendered PKK fighter and member of JITEM (Informal Structure of Genderma Intelligence Agency). During the 1990s, JITEM was accused of the murder of “unknown assailants” in Kurdistan. The Judiciary acquitted all JITEM suspects. Elic had been one of the lawyers in a JITEM case, which closed at the start of November.

Before the JITEM trial, on October 15, Elci has participated a discussion program on CNN-Turk and suggested, ‘PKK is not a terrorist organization.’ Five days later, on October 20, Elic was detained by the State for “terrorist propaganda.” That same day, the authorities released him. Elci faced seven and a half years in prison. Elci’s statement – that the PKK is not a terrorist organization – earned him the wrath of the nationalists. In an interview, Elci said of the backlash, “In social media I got hundreds of tweets which threated me with death. In some tweets they describe how they would kill me. They gave details. And also we got maybe tons of phone calls.”

Tahir Elci joins a list of prominent intellectuals assassinated in Turkey since the killing of Musa Anter in 1989.

In 2007, during the AKP’s first term in government, Hrant Dink was killed in Istanbul. Nationalists routinely attacked Dink, an Armenian journalist (editor-in-chief of Agos and columnist for BirGün), for his brave columns. He called for peace between the various nationalities that lived in Turkey: the Armenians, the Kurds and the Turks, among others. Frequently harassed by the authorities, Dink did not back down. He was hit by a nationalist hitman related to Turkish intelligence (MIT, the National Intelligence Agency). His assassination took place in the middle of the day, in the middle of a busy street. The judiciary has not moved the case along these past eight years.

What relates the Anter and Dink cases are the culpability between the state and the murderers. Every single case – and the lack of justice for the victims – encourages the next such case. This is also so with the major terrorist attacks in Turkey – Roboski (35 dead), Suruc (32 dead), Ankara (102 dead)….

After Tahir Elci’s killing, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said Elci might have been assassinated. “There might be a plan to assassinate Elci,” he said. There was a second scenario, suggested Davutoğlu: “that the police forces opened fire to protect people there after an attack by terrorists. Elci was caught in the crossfire.” Pro AKP media have started to release fabricated reports claiming that the PKK is responsible for the murder. The government immediately said that the investigation would be conducted in secret. The government immediately called for a media blackout. If the trends are normal, Elci’s case will also be blacked out. Mud has been thrown into the investigation. The finger will not point toward the real assailants.

Peace between the State and the Kurds recedes from the horizon. The peace talks between 2012 and 2014 were not based on the Constitution. AKP threatened the Kurdish parties: if they did not agree to this or that the process would be stopped. Violence against Kurdish leaders and intellectuals continued – murdered in interrogation rooms and in the streets.

JITEM is no longer active. In its place, a radical Islamic organization – Esadullah – has emerged in the current conflict. Their intimidation is routine. Walls are signed with their slogans – Esadullah team has arrived! It is chilling. It follows brutal nationalist jargon: You’ll See the Power of the Turk, and If You’re a Turk Be Proud, If Not Obey.” This has been the atmosphere in the Kurdish majority regions.

Elci literally means envoy. Tahir Elci had been named the Peace Envoy by the opposition media. He devoted his life to peace and to human rights. His death decreases the chance of peace. The State knows that it is untouchable. Kurds are silent. They will not remain patient.

HDP’s Selahattin Demirtas, who was himself caught in a attempted assassination last week, gave a sad speech during Elci’s funeral. “What killed Tahrir was not the state,” he said, “but statelessness.” Demirtas, for the first time in a great long while, has mentioned the need for a Kurdish state. This mental opening between the Kurds and the Turkish State might portend a bloodier era in the near future.

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Omur Sahin Keyif is a journalist with BirGun.

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