Rights group accuses Turkey of covering up its ‘dirty war’

Turkish authorities are blocking investigations into the killings of suspected Kurdish rebels, according to the Human Rights Association (IHD).

ISTANBUL // A Turkish human-rights group has accused authorities of trying to block an investigation into suspected extrajudicial killings by security forces in the Kurdish region of the country.

Up to 10,000 civilians disappeared in the Kurdish region during the 1990s, according to the Human Rights Association (IHD). The area saw the heaviest fighting between Turkish security forces and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a separatist rebel group that launched a guerrilla war against Ankara in 1984.

Observers said bringing serving or former policemen, soldiers or intelligence agents to justice for killing Kurdish civilians would be an important step to overcome mistrust between Turkey's estimated 12 million Kurds and the Turkish state and to solve the long-running Kurdish conflict.

"If the Turkish state really wanted to, exact locations of mass graves [of victims} and documents relating to the [killings in the 1990s] would have been published by now," Raci Bilici, chairman of the chapter of the IHD in the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, said. "But the state does not want to."

He was speaking after a state forensic institute ruled that human remains found on the grounds of a former interrogation centre run by a notorious intelligence unit in Diyarbakir, were not victims of unlawful killings in the Kurdish conflict. Mr Bilici said he did not believe the institute's report was accurate and called for an independent inquiry.

Several state prosecutors in the Kurdish region have been investigating cases of alleged killings by members of the security forces in a dirty war against suspected PKK sympathisers, but there have been no conviction so far.

In some cases, the bodies of the missing were found later, but the remains of many people have never been recovered. Jitem, a now-defunct special forces and intelligence unit of the paramilitary gendarmerie, is suspected of having been involved in many of the killings.

"It is important for the Kurdish conflict and for the general issue of questioning authoritarianism," Beril Dedeoglu, a political scientist at Istanbul's Galatasaray University, said about the excavation of suspected mass graves and the investigations. The government needed the political will to clear up the crimes and bring state officials to justice if necessary, and investigations should be conducted with transparency, Prof Dedeoglu said this week. "It is very important."

Testimony of witnesses and former soldiers point to an involvement of government forces in the killings. Last week, a witness in a trial against 16 former Jitem members told the court that officers of the unit killed Musa Anter, a well-known Kurdish writer, in 1992. A former Turkish admiral, Atilla Kiyat, has told the court in another case involving a military officer accused of atrocities the killings of Kurdish activists had been a "state policy". The retired admiral testified in February 2011 as a witness in the trial against Colonel Cemal Temizoz, who is accused of involvement in the death of 52 Kurdish civilians between 1992 and 1995.

According to the IHD, victims of suspected extrajudicial killings have been buried in 253 different places in Turkey, but only 29 of the graves have been opened so far. Last week, prosecutors in Mardin province, also in the Kurdish area, oversaw the excavation of a skull, bones and clothes at one grave. The prosecutors have been investigating the deaths of six people who were called in for questioning by the security forces in 1995 and were never seen again.

In what was initially seen as a boost for efforts to clear up the crimes, workers digging a ditch for a natural gas pipe in January found human skulls in Ickale, a part of Diyarbakir's old town used as a Jitem interrogation centre in the 1990s. The site was cordoned off by state prosecutors and excavations were expanded. A total 34 skulls have been located so far.

But this week, a report by a state forensic institute said skulls and other bones found in Diyarbakir could not be the remains of victims of unlawful Jitem killings because they were at least a hundred years old. Mr Bilici said he did not trust the report of the Forensic Institute in Istanbul because the institution had taken the side of the authorities in other cases involving suspected human-rights abuses by security forces. "Our trust has been poisoned," he said.

Mr Bilici said the investigation should have been conducted according to the so-called Minnesota Protocol, an agreement that Turkey has signed and that states "a special commission of inquiry" should be established in cases where the involvement of government forces in crimes is suspected.

In the case of the suspected mass graves of Jitem victims in Diyarbakir, state prosecutors decided to keep the investigation strictly confidential, without the participation of non-governmental organisations or independent experts, he said.

"Independent inquiries are needed to face the past," Mr Bilici said. He said the IHD would continue to campaign for the opening of mass graves in the Kurdish region despite the apparent setback in Diyarbakir.

The state prosecution in the city said in a statement quoted by Turkish media yesterday that genetic tests on some samples were continuing. The prosecution did not say whether the investigation would continue, and it is unclear whose remains were found in Ickale.

Prof Dedeoglu, the political scientist in Istanbul, said the skulls could belong to Armenians killed during massacres in the First World War. "They were looking for Kurds, but they found Armenians," she said.