The Uludere Bombing: When Will Their Families Get Justice?

Kurdish people hold pictures of victims killed in a Turkish air raid during a demonstration on May 26, 2012, in Istanbul. (Photo credit BULENT KILIC/AFP/GettyImages)

Kurdish people hold pictures of victims killed in a Turkish air raid during a demonstration on May 26, 2012, in Istanbul. (Photo credit BULENT KILIC/AFP/GettyImages)

On December 28, 2011, the Turkish military killed thirty-four of its own citizens, all civilians, most of them children in the Uludere/Qileban district, in Eastern Turkey.  The youngest was twelve.  A year has now passed and the families of these innocent people still wait for justice.

The Turkish government has offered compensation to the families of those killed.  The families, however, have refused to accept it until the truth behind the attack is uncovered and justice is done.

The families are still waiting.  On the anniversary of the Uludere bombings, Amnesty once again calls on the Turkish government to fully investigate these events and to bring those responsible to justice.

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In Turkey: The Ivory Tower Besieged

Turkish students stage a protest against the government and condemning the detentions of students at the universities in Ankara on June 16, 2012. (ADEM ALTAN/AFP/GettyImages)

In Turkey, it is not “publish or perish” that scholars must fear.  It is prison.

There was a time, not very long ago, that Turkey seemed on the edge of a new era of academic and intellectual freedom.  New private universities created institutional support for more independent scholarship, while the Turkish government showed at least grudging willingness to allow debate of formerly “taboo subjects.”  For example, in 2005, the ruling AK (Justice and Development Party) Party, after initial hesitation, publicly supported the first conference in Turkey that seriously examined the Armenian Genocide.  It soon became apparent, however, that the AK Party’s vision of academic freedom has clear limits.

Asserting Control over the Universities

In some cases, basic science came under attack.  In Turkey, as in the United States, there is a powerful creationist movement eager to debunk fundamental aspects of evolutionary science.  Creationism has deep roots in Turkey and the ruling AK Party has quietly picked up the banner of anti-science.  Slowly, over the past several years, major scholarly institutions have lost their independence and party hacks have replaced serious researchers.

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Turkish Human Rights and the Syrian Conflict

Recent tensions along the Turkish – Syrian border have captured the world’s attention and sparked tough talk in Ankara.  Turkey’s parliament has approved cross-border operations and the Turkish military has increased its presence on the border.  Artillery fire across the border is a daily event and, after Turkey stopped and searched two flights bound for Syria, each country has banned the other from using its airspace.  Yet, there is no war fever on Turkish streets.  Part of the reason for this lays in longstanding Turkish traditions; an important strand of Republican popular memory highlights the “foreign entanglements” of the Ottoman Empire as a mistake not to be repeated.  Just as important, however, are the ways in which the Syrian crisis is understood within the context of Turkish domestic politics and the on-going repression of activists and dissidents within the country.

Although Turkey has been touted as “a democratic model for the Middle East,” the reality is far more complicated.   This, after all, is a country where expressing unpopular views can land you in jail.  World renowned pianist, Fazıl Say, for example, is on trial for tweets deemed “insulting to religious values.”  Poking fun at politicians can also land you in big trouble.  Recently, a man was sentenced to more than a year in prison for making fun of the Turkish president, Abdullah Gül.  Needless to say, there is no Turkish equivalent of the Daily Show.  The Turkish record on press freedoms continues to be “bleak” according to a recent review by Marc Pierini for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, with many journalists in prison or on trial and a growing culture of self-censorship.

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Uludere: Civilian Deaths and a Culture of Silence in Turkey

On the night of December 28, 2011, two Turkish F-16s attacked a group of civilians crossing into Turkey from Iraq, killing thirty-five, many of whom were children (one only twelve years old).  The Turkish government has described it as an unfortunate accident and promised an investigation, but many believe the attack was intentional, especially given that this was a well-known smuggling route for Kurds along the Turkish-Iraqi border.   It was, according to the head of the Turkish Human Rights Association, Öztürk Türkdoğan, quite simply, “a massacre… an extrajudicial execution.”

Clearly, without a transparent inquiry, the truth cannot be known.  But, will the Turkish government be willing to fully investigate these deaths and hold those responsible to account?  Despite the promises of Turkish government officials, early signs are not positive.  The investigator has, for example, refused to meet with Turkish human rights organizations, despite multiple petitions.  Protests in response to the deaths were met by arrests.

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Turkey: A Repressive Model for the Middle East?

One of the frustrations of talking about the Turkish Republic right now is that so much is going on, in so many different directions, that it can be hard to decide what issues to address.  In particular, the tremendous gap between its increasingly important role in the world seems inconsistent with increased repression at home and has made it tough for journalists to address both simultaneously.

Much of the talk is about Turkey’s new “soft power.”  Turkish culture is becoming more influential, with a booming economy and a dynamic film and television industry that has found a tremendous following among its neighbors in both the Balkans and the Middle East.  In the past few years it has become an important regional player and is widely seen as a potential model for democratic movements in the wider Middle East.

The Turkish government was a vocal critic of repression in Libya and Egypt and has been at the forefront of efforts to curb the on-going repression in Syria.  While its voice has been selective (Turkey supported Ahmadinejad during the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009 and has been notably reticent in its criticism of Bahrain this past year), it deserves credit for the support it has given to democratic forces this past year.

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Crackdown in Turkey Continues

In recent weeks, we have been detailing Turkey’s crackdown on Kurdish activism and the round up of thousands of individuals on terrorism charges. Those arrested, including human rights activists, journalists, and politicians, have seldom been accused of actual violence; rather, under Article 314 of the Turkish Penal Code, they have been accused of “being members of an illegal organization.”

Moreover, the Turkish government need not even demonstrate their guilt to deny them their freedom.  Extensive pre-trial detentions ensure that most will be imprisoned for lengthy periods regardless of the outcome of any eventual trial.  As Amnesty has previously noted:

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A War on Dissent in Turkey

Ragip Zarakolu

Activist Ragip Zarakolu is currently languishing in a Turkish prison (Photo by John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images)

It has, by any standards, been a painful last few months in Turkey.  Violence between the Kurdish nationalist PKK and the Turkish state has risen sharply, resulting in the Turkish military crossing over into Northern Iraq in force.  A devastating earthquake in the city of Van has killed hundreds, left thousands seriously injured, and left tens of thousands homeless as cold weather moves into the region.  Coming at a time of increased tensions between Kurds and Turks, the tragedy in Van exposed political as well as geological fault lines that bode ill for Turkey’s future.

And then there are the arrests.  Little noticed outside of Turkey, thousands have been arrested over the past few years for what appear to be political crimes.  Since 2001, some 12,000 Turkish citizens have been arrested under terror statutes, with nearly four thousand arrested in just the last thirty months.

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Turkey's Disappeared: The Pain of the Past and New Dangers

Turkey, more than most countries, is a place where forgetting the past has become a central component of national culture.   This August 30, the International Day of the Disappeared, is a time when Turkey should renew its efforts at uncovering and facing some of the uglier pages of that past in the hopes of creating a freer, more democratic future.

Kurdish women hold portraits of their missing sons during a demonstration against the killing of 12 Kurdish rebels by security forces. © Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images

Although many mass graves in Turkey can be traced to the beginning of the century, a map recently published in the daily, Radikal, highlights the startling extent of such sites dating from the 1990’s, when the war between the Turkish state and the Kurdish nationalist, PKK, or Kurdish Workers’ Party, burned hottest.  The bodies of thousands were unceremoniously dumped into mass graves.

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A Turkish Spring? Freedom To Decide, Freedom To Remember

Spring is a time for optimism and so, despite all the troubling news coming out of Turkey, let me call attention to some positive signs.

The week started badly, when the Turkish Higher Election Board declared that a number of mostly Kurdish candidates for parliament, including Leyla Zana and other former prisoners of conscience, had been disqualified from running.   The decision led to massive protests in Istanbul, Van, Diyarbakir, and elsewhere. In the wake of these protests, however, the Higher Election Board has reversed itself and most, if not all, of the candidates, including Ms. Zana, will be able to run for office.

The coming week promises an event which holds reason for optimism of another sort: on Monday, April 24th a number of Turkish NGOs, will be holding a march to commemorate the Armenian Genocide and call attention to continued issues of bigotry in Turkey. This brave action is a part of a larger effort to deal forthrightly with Turkey’s past.  For example, in ways that were unimaginable only ten years ago, there are now open discussions of the Turkey’s open warfare against the Kurds of Dersim in 1937 – 38, which left tens of thousands killed and uprooted many thousands more.  What is particularly remarkable about these discussions, which have gone on for decades in intellectual circles is that they are now entering into the popular consciousness: as one taboo falters, others are weakened.

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