ISTANBUL // A former high-ranking official in the Turkish military has broken a long-held silence over the government's suspected involvement in extrajudicial killings, a move applauded by human rights activists. The killings are believed to be a result of the government's fight against the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a rebel group. The killings, which rights activists estimate to be anywhere between 3,000 to 5,000 cases for the period between 1989 and 1996, when most of the executions took place, have long been a taboo subject. Accusing security forces of perpetrating such atrocities has been regarded as treasonous and could result in provoking intimidation or worse.
But this is changing. After mass graves were unearthed in the region last year, prosecutors in the Kurdish area have begun investigating and building cases. A military officer is now standing trial in the south-eastern city of Diyarbakir for his alleged involvement in extrajudicial killings, while a former admiral has confirmed that the killings in the 1990s were part of an official, if secret, "state policy".
"I think that people in power at the time saw the unsolved murders as a tool to fight terrorism," the retired admiral, Atilla Kiyat, told the Haberturk television channel this month. "How can you sleep peacefully at night?" he asked, addressing Turkey's political and military establishment of the 1990s. "Come forward and say openly whether the unsolved murders were a state policy and whether those boys [who carried out the murders] were implementing state policy or not. If you say that 'No, there was no such state policy', then say it. But they will not say it."
Mr Kiyat's statement, a rare call to resolve years of angst and frustration over the killings and disappearances, was welcomed by activists and relatives. "It is a chance to face up to our past," Nusirevan Elci, the president of the bar association in the south-eastern Turkish province of Sirnak, said in a telephone interview. "Everyone knew it was state policy because those were no local events; they were all over the place. It is unthinkable that some military officer somewhere acted on his own initiative."
In the early 1990s, the PKK rebels were at the peak of their power in Turkey's Kurdish region, launching a wave of attacks against the security forces. The military responded with a troop increase in south-eastern Anatolia to counter the growing insurrectionary fervour. Amid the ensuing fighting, according to human rights activists, the state targeted suspected PKK supporters with a "dirty war" campaign that included widespread torture, extrajudicial killings and co-operation between security forces and mafia hit men.
In 1996 a scandal involving a high-ranking police officer, a wanted mob leader and a Kurdish parliamentary deputy offered the first hint that something was amiss. The scandal erupted after a car crash that revealed the three had travelled together in the same vehicle, and that the mafia boss carried a diplomatic passport and a gun permit signed by the government although there was an arrest warrant out for him.
Leading politicians have been accused of thwarting investigations into the matter, for example by refusing to testify before parliamentary commissions. A culture of impunity has made it difficult for lawyers who represent torture victims to bring police or military officers to trial. Although political and judicial reforms in recent years have been launched to bring Turkey closer to the European Union, progress at chipping away at official immunity has been slow.
Yesterday, Mr Kiyat entered a courthouse in Istanbul to testify as a witness in the trial against the military officer in Diyarbakir. He declined to answer questions from reporters. The Association of Those Who Lost Relatives, or Yakay-Der, a group representing the families of victims of suspected extrajudicial killings, called Mr Kiyat's statement "an admission of guilt that shines a light on a dark period" and announced it would bring criminal charges against former state officials suspected of ordering the killings.
In Istanbul, relatives of the disappeared hold weekly rallies to keep the deaths in the public conscience. But not everyone regards the former admiral's admission on live television as a step forward. Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, accused Mr Kiyat of showmanship. "If you know something, there are prosecutors and judges waiting in line to listen to you," Mr Bahceli said.
"But it does nobody any good if you sit down in a television studio and smear the place that raised you with insolent remarks." The retired admiral may have been motivated by a sense that military officers who are currently standing trial are being unfairly punished for decisions taken by their superiors. "A lieutenant posted to [the south-eastern Anatolian province of] Cizre could not just up and say, 'Well, I'll take care of this Hasan or that Mehmet and finish off terrorism'. No, someone gave the order to do it."
Whatever the reasons behind his statement, human rights activists say it might prove helpful in finding out the truth. Cemal Babaoglu, a human rights leader in Sanliurfa, whose brother, a journalist, disappeared in mysterious circumstances in 1995, told a recent meeting organised by a human rights group in the city that Mr Kiyat "has confirmed what we have suspected for years". Mr Babaoglu added that charges should be brought swiftly against leading politicians of the 1990s because "the truth is coming out".