A month ago, in the days leading up to the November 1st election, I interviewed Tahir Elçi in his office in the Diyarbakir Bar Association. Immediately following the interview, I remember turning to my colleague and remarking that if any man was going to be able to bring peace back to the volatile Kurdish south-east, it was Tahir Elçi.
Approaching all meetings with a humble persona, Elçi instilled trust and confidence with his reassuring ability to assess the political conflict calmly. As a critic of both PKK and Turkish State violence, he was a man whose independence of thought, as well as his firm conviction in justice, guided him throughout.
Early on Saturday morning he was shot dead when the press conference he was giving was attacked by a rain of bullets. The Kurdish human rights lawyer who also headed the Diyarbakir Bar association had been giving a press conference calling for peace and lamenting the damage inflicted on the historical “four-legged” minaret in Diyarbakir’s old city as a result of clashes,
“We don’t want any guns, conflict or operations in this historical and very old region of humanity, which has hosted many civilizations. We want this region to be far from all wars, guns or operations.
Little did he know that his cry to protect such a monument were to be his last words. Photos quickly circulated around social media showing Elçi lying face down in a pool of blood under the historical minaret.
Was Tahir Elçi assasinated?
The exact circumstances under which the human rights lawyer was killed is unclear from the video footage circulating social media. Demirtas, the leader of the pro-Kurdish HDP, said that it was a police bullet which killed Elçi whilst Turkish authorities responded by immediately blaming the PKK. Whatever the truth behind his killing, his death warrant was most likely signed when he reached national news last month after claiming that the PKK was not a terrorist organisation live on Ahmet Hakan’s popular TV show, Tarafsiz Bölge. This was followed by a prosecution against him and numerous death threats. Ahmet Akgündüz, a university president in Holland, appeared to condone his death on twitter with the words, “Tahir Elçi is dead. Well, those who live by the sword die by the sword.”
When I asked Tahir Elçi last month why he said the PKK was not a terrorist organisation, he said: “I wanted to break the taboo regarding the PKK being labelled as terrorist by Turkish media which fails to understand the large local support they have due to their legitimate demands for Kurdish rights. I didn’t say it because I support the PKK, but rather I wanted to state a fact regarding their legitimacy in the eyes of many Kurds.”
Such an argument is hard to doubt. Whilst the PKK do not have complete support across Kurdish society, the fact remains that for many Kurds, the PKK are seen as a legitimate political force. It is the guerrillas, and not Turkey’s security forces, which many Kurds look towards with trust. And the reference of the PKK as a terrorist organisation, rather than an armed political force, only polarises Kurds further from Turkey’s mainstream.
Tahir spoke honestly on the political climate in Turkey. Whilst reserving most of his criticism towards the government’s violence against Kurdish residents, he also continuously criticised the actions of YDG-H- the urban, youth wing of the PKK- for their armed resistance: “The rebuilding of the trenches was foolish. We took 80 seats with 6.5m votes, showing the chance of obtaining democratic rights through elections. With such success of HDP, what is the need for this violence?”
Working as a human rights lawyer
Tahir Elçi undoubtedly believed in a peaceful solution to the conflict. He spent much of his professional career taking cases of forced disappearances and torture of Kurdish dissidents by the Turkish state to the European Court of Human Rights. He wrote a long report on Cizre, his hometown, which was subjected to a brutal eight day curfew in September, killing over twenty civilians. Tahir believed that for a peaceful solution, there needs to be some recognition of the state-sponsored murders that were so common throughout the 1990s, the bloodiest decade in the conflict between the PKK and Turkish security forces. Because of this, Elçi spent much of his professional career fighting for such murder cases to be recognised. During his funeral, his wife remarked that “thousands of other victims of unsolved state murders will greet my husband on the other side; they will recognise and embrace him. He devoted his whole life to solving their murders.”
Such work makes the claim that he was killed by the PKK implausible. Whilst he criticised the actions of the PKK recently, the sheer work that Tahir Elçi and his colleagues have done in unearthing the atrocities committed by the Turkish state against Kurds meant he was always much more of a target to Ankara than he was to the PKK.
In Turkey’s recent history, there have been many examples of prominent journalists, politicians and lawyers who have been killed. In 1991, the prominent Kurdish politician, Vedat Aydin, was arrested in Diyarbakir, and two days later his body was found mutilated on the outskirts of the city. Hrant Dink, an Armenian journalist, was killed on the streets of Istanbul in 2007. These are just two examples of a number of high-profile figures being murdered for their work, with no justice ever achieved. The fact that Turkish authorities immediately announced that the investigation into Elci’s death will be conducted in secret makes it highly likely that he will join this growing list of unresolved killings. The lack of justice within Turkey only serves as an encouragement for similar incidents to take place in the future.
Demirtas, the co-chair of the pro-Kurdish HDP, reacted to Tahir Elçi’s deaths with these remarks,
“We doubt this political murder will be completely resolved. We have the right to be doubtful. We couldn’t utter a farewell to other fallen friends with the peace of mind that the murderers will be arrested. We have laboured for this state to be everyone’s, and we are still working on this. Tahir’s murderer is not the state, but the lack of the State.”
Supposedly meant to ensure the safety of all its citizens, Turkey’s security forces have continuously failed Kurds in the last six months. Not only has there been an increase in ISIS terrorism against Kurdish civilians, but the breakdown in social order has allowed a group known as “Allah’s Lions” to terrorise Kurdish civilians, with many eyewitnesses claiming they look more like ISIS jihadists than Turkish policeman. Clad in black, the presence of such a force within the south-eastern territories shows how much the region has been subjected to terror.
With such groups persisting in terrorising Kurds, Demirtas’s comments ring true: “Tahir’s murderer is not the state, but the lack of it”. The reality with which Kurds suffer atrocities comes from the failure of the Turkish state to protect them, leaving them without a state that they can call their own. Such a lack of protection only serves to alienate them further from the Ankara administration, and underlines their vulnerability. In this, statelessness is the true killer of Tahir Elçi.