Mass-graves and State Silence in Turkey

In the nineties, at the height of the war between the Turkish military and the Kurdish nationalist Kurdish Worker’s Party, or PKK, it was clear that the Turkish security forces were engaged in torture and extra-judicial killings as a means of ending Kurdish separatism.  Thousands were “disappeared” and reports by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations were typically met with stonewalling from the Turkish government.  The results were devastating for the families of the murdered and bred a culture of impunity within the Turkish security services which continues to this day.

The current Turkish government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, has voiced sympathy with the families of victims.  But actions speak louder than words.   Hundreds of mass graves have been uncovered, but the Turkish government has shown little interest in uncovering this ugly period in Turkish history or in bringing perpetrators to justice.  The government has not maintained forensic evidence at the excavations and has been lax in maintaining evidence after it has been disinterred. In some cases, security forces seem to be intent on destroying evidence outright. Moreover, the government continues to resist calls for an independent investigation.

The Turkish government, while speaking of its commitment to human rights, has been lackluster in addressing the abuses of security officials.  Torture continues as do suspicious killings. Careful forensic work on the mass graves in Eastern Turkey and a commitment to bringing perpetrators to justice would be an important step in changing the culture of impunity that continues to infect Turkish security services.  It would also help to bring light to a dark chapter in Turkey’s history and solace to the families that continue to suffer from those crimes.

Howard Eissenstat is a Country Specialist for Amnesty International – USA and an Assistant Professor of Middle East History at St. Lawrence University.  He can be reached at heissens@stlawu.edu.