The death of Turkey's Tahir Elçi

The death of Turkey's Tahir Elçi
Comment: The murder of the famed Kurdish human rights lawyer stems from Ankara's unwillingness to protect all of its citizens, writes Yvo Fitzerbert.
5 min read
01 Dec, 2015
Mourners rallied in Dyarbakir for the funeral of Tahir Elci [AFP]

One month ago, I interviewed Kurdish human rights lawyer Tahir Elçi in his office in the Diyarbakır Bar Association in the days leading up to the November 1 election.

Immediately after 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, Tahir Elçi was him.

Approaching all meetings with humility, 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 in a hail of bullets. Elçi, the head of the Diyarbakır bar association, had called for peace while lamenting the damage inflicted on the historic "four-legged" minaret in Diyarbakır'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 civilisations. We want this region to be far from all wars, guns or operations."

     Little did he know that his cries to protect the monument were to be his last words

Little did he know that his cries to protect the monument were to be his last words. Photos circulating on social media show Elçi lying face down in a pool of blood under the minaret.

Was Tahir
Elçi assasinated?

The exact circumstances under which the human rights lawyer was killed is unclear from the video which has been circulating on social media. However, his death warrant may have been signed when he reached national news last month for claiming that the PKK was not a terrorist organisation live on Ahmet Hakan's popular TV show, Tarafsız Bölge.

This was followed by a prosecution against him and numerous death threats. Ahmet Akgündüz, a university professor in Holland, appeared to condone his death, tweeting: "Tahir Elçi is dead. Well, those who live by the sword die by the sword."

I asked Elçi why he said the PKK was not a terrorist organisation.

"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," he said.

"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. While the PKK does not have complete support across Kurdish society, the fact remains that, for many Kurds, the PKK is seen as a legitimate political force.

It is the guerrillas, and not Turkey's security forces, whom many Kurds look towards for 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. While reserving most of his criticism for the government's violence against Kurdish residents, he also criticised the actions of YDG-H - the urban, youth wing of the PKK - for its armed programme.

"The rebuilding of the trenches was foolish," he said. "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 fighting cases of forced disappearances and torture of Kurdish dissidents by the Turkish state in 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 at least 20 civilians.

At his funeral, Elçi's 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".

     A voice of reason was killed, and this is surely a set back for peace

Such work makes the claim that he was killed by the PKK implausible.

While he recently criticised the actions of the PKK, the sheer volume of work that Tahir Elçi and his colleagues have performed in unearthing the atrocities committed by the Turkish state against Kurds meant he was always much more of a target of Ankara than he was of the PKK.

A voice of reason was killed, and this is surely a set back for peace.

Demirtas, the co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democracy Party  (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 its citizens, Turkey's security forces have continuously failed Kurds in the past six months.

Not only has there been an increase in Islamic State group terrorism against Kurdish civilians, but the breakdown in law and order has led to a group known as Allah's Lions terrorising Kurdish civilians - with many eyewitnesses claiming they look more like IS jihadists than Turkish police.

Clad in black, the presence of such a paramilitary force within the south-eastern territories shows the extent to which the region has been subjected to terror.

With such groups continuing to terrorise Kurds, Demirtas' comments ring true: "Tahir's murderer is not the state, but the lack of it."

The reality in which Kurds suffer atrocities comes from the failure of the Turkish state to protect them, thus leaving Kurdish citizens without a perceived state.

Until the state reaches out to its Kurdish citizenry, Kurds cannot call it their own. In this, statelessness is the true killer of Tahir Elçi.

Yvo Fitzherbert is a freelance journalist based in Turkey. He has written on Kurdish politics, the Syrian war and the refugee crisis for a variety of Turkish and English publications. Follow him on Twitter: @yvofitz

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.