The Turkish government should take action to address statutory time limits, witness intimidation, and other obstacles to the prosecution of members of security forces and public officials for killings, disappearances, and torture, Human Rights Watch said in a report.
Those responsible for the serious human rights violations committed after the September 1980 military coup and against the Kurdish civilian population in the 1990s, during the conflict between the state and the armed outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have never been held to account.
Hundreds of deaths in custody and summary executions by the security forces risk being deemed time-barred for prosecution because of a 20-year limitation on murder investigations contained in Turkey’s previous penal code. Thousands more state-perpetrated killings of Kurds from the early 1990s could be similarly excluded from prosecution and trial in the coming three years.
“Old laws that curtail investigations into serious human rights abuses in Turkey have allowed the security forces and public officials to get away with murder and torture,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It is vital that Turkish authorities act now to ensure there are no time bars on victims getting justice.”
The 67-page report “Time for Justice: Ending Impunity for Killings and Disappearances in 1990s Turkey” looks at the lessons on obstacles to accountability from the ongoing trial of retired Colonel Cemal Temizöz and six others for the murder and disappearance of 20 men and boys between 1993 and 1995. It is the first such trial of a senior member of the gendarmerie for serious human rights violations committed in the course of the conflict between the state and the PKK.
The report builds on interviews with 55 individuals in Şırnak province, whose relatives were murdered or disappeared by suspected state perpetrators in the early 1990s.
Relatives of victims repeatedly told Human Rights Watch that they wanted to see perpetrators brought to trial for the murders and disappearances of their loved ones. Harun Padır was 17 years old in 1994 when security forces detained him with his father İzzet Padır and uncle Abdullah Özdemir, who were never seen again. He expressed a sentiment shared by all the relatives of the victims Human Rights Watch interviewed for the report: “For us compensation means nothing. We just want justice.”
Human Rights Watch’s interviews and the Diyarbakır trial highlight the climate of fear among relatives of victims that prevailed in the southeast region until very recently, compounded by a complete absence of effective investigation of killings and disappearances in the region at the time and subsequently.
One witness in the Temizöz case, İsmet Uykur, saw the murder of his father Ramazan Uykur in Cizre town in broad daylight in February 1994. He told the Diyarbakır court: “Fear triumphed in Cizre. In those days we were unable to go and lodge complaints because there were many unresolved killings… there were people who had seen the incidents in the region but at that time they wouldn’t be witnesses because of their fear; in those days we were afraid of the gendarmerie and the village guards.”
Human Rights Watch spoke to dozens of relatives of victims who confirmed either that they had, for many years, been too afraid to pursue complaints or that, if they did, there was a complete absence of any effective investigation. Their words reinforce the European Court of Human Rights’ many judgments against Turkey recording violations of the right to life through a pattern of failure to carry out effective investigations.
Witnesses reported that security forces abducted and later killed Ömer Candoruk, Yahya Akman, and two cousins, Süleyman Gasyak and Abdulaziz Gasyak, after they passed by car through a gendarmerie checkpoint on the road to Silopi in March 1994. Sabri Gasyak, Abdulaziz’s brother, told Human Rights Watch: “We couldn’t have pursued complaints back then or sought justice. I’d have been arrested if I’d pursued the case. In the late 80s our village in Siirt’s Pervari district was burnt down by the state and emptied. We were taken in and tortured; hundreds of our animals were killed. In 1994 after Süleyman and Abdulaziz were killed, many of our family went to Zahko in northern Iraq.”
The Temizöz case has provided important lessons about the possible obstacles to justice likely to arise in thousands more cases of abuse by members of the security forces and state officials in provinces throughout the southeast of Turkey and also in major cities.
Drawing on these lessons, Time for Justice calls on the Turkish government, courts, and prosecutors to develop a model of victim-centered justice in Turkey. Prosecutors and courts need to offer vulnerable witnesses, relatives of victims, and their lawyers more effective protection from intimidation and attacks in and out of court when they are testifying in trials against defendants who are members of the security forces, village guards, or state officials. Action is also needed to shorten proceedings, which stretch out over months and years making intimidation more likely.
“The climate of fear among victims’ relatives and witnesses persists to this day,” said Sinclair-Webb. “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.”
The report contains concrete recommendations to strengthen justice for crimes by state actors, including:
- Increasing the speed and efficiency of trials, including by holding hearings on consecutive days;
- Designating prosecutors to focus on the investigation of past abuses;
- Directing prosecutors to fully investigate chain of command responsibility for human rights abuses;
Strenuous efforts should be made by prosecutors and courts to identify members of the security forces to whom witnesses refer only by their code names so that prosecutors can call them to testify as possible suspects;
Witness protection measures should be improved and courts should ensure they take action to sanction intimidation of witnesses and victims’ relatives.
The report recommends that the Turkish parliament establish an independent truth commission to examine past abuses. It also builds on earlier recommendations by the UN, the Council of Europe, and other international bodies calling on the government to pursue a comprehensive plan to dismantle the village guard system operating in provinces of southeast Turkey. The report finds the village guard system, deeply embedded in the social and political fabric of local communities, to be a major obstacle to justice in the region.