Who Murdered Sakine Cansız?

A woman of Kurdish origin holds a sign reading "Sakine Cansiz, Fidan Dogan, Leyla Soylemez - 3 women militants of the Kurdish cause" during a demonstration and commemoration in honor of the three Kurdish women activists killed yesterday in Paris, on January 10, 2013.

A woman of Kurdish origin holds a sign reading “Sakine Cansiz, Fidan Dogan, Leyla Soylemez – 3 women militants of the Kurdish cause” during a demonstration and commemoration in honor of the three Kurdish women activists killed in Paris on January 10, 2013. (FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images)

On the night of January 9, three women were murdered in the offices of the Kurdistan Information Office in Paris.   According to press accounts, the three were killed execution style, each shot with a bullet to the head.

All of the three women, Sakine Cansız, Fidan Doğan and Leyla Söylemez, were activists, with ties to the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, and Cansız, the eldest of the group, is one of the founders and leading figures within that organization.

While there is considerable debate as to who killed these women, there is little question that these murders were political in nature.   Most analysts believe that the killings are aimed at scuttling nascent talks between the Turkish government and the PKK aimed at ending a conflict which has cost as many as 40,000 lives and led to countless human rights abuses since it began in 1984.

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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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Hunger Strikes in Turkey: A Quiet Crisis

With relatively little attention from the international press, a quiet crisis is developing in Turkey, where hundreds of prisoners are engaged in mass hunger strikes.   The strikes originated in mid-September, with initial demands centering on Kurdish language education and the on-going refusal of Turkish authorities to allow PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan, to meet with his lawyers.  Additional hunger strikes have sprung up in scores of prisons throughout the country, with demands diversifying as the strikes have spread and at least seven hundred men and women now participating.   Because the hunger strikers are allowing themselves water fortified with salt, sugar and vitamins to prolong the strike, these protests are likely to be long, slow, and painful.  The first strikers have already gone without food for nearly two months and doctors have indicated that some hunger strikers are nearing death.  Outside the prisons, violent clashes between protestors and law enforcement officials continue.

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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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Closing the Doors to Justice in Turkey

In a recent blog, my colleague, Bill Jones, noted the ways in which the Turkish government has targeted Kurdish lawyers as part of its general crackdown on political dissent in Turkey.  These arrests, he points out, are in violation of UN agreements and represent a violation of basic human rights.  But conditions seem likely to get worse before they get better.

A draft law is currently working its way through the Turkish Parliament that will further curb the capacity of lawyers to meet with their clients.  The law was developed primarily to limit communications between imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan, and his lawyers, forty-seven of whom were arrested this past November.  Apparently, claiming that the ferry to İmralı Island, where Öcalan is incarcerated, is “out of order” is no longer considered sufficient.

The draft law, which has largely passed unnoticed by domestic and international observers, promises to be yet another tool by which Turkey will be able to limit the rights of prisoners.  It would effectively give the government the right to ban prisoners’ access to lawyers for up to six months.  Needless to say, all of this is likely to further violate international agreements regarding the treatment of prisoners.

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"Kill All The Lawyers": Stifling Dissent in Turkey

Turkey’s jailing of writers has received increasing attention in both the Turkish and the international press, enough to force Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to defend the fact that Turkey has more journalists in prison,  describing them as “so-called journalists” who “ are actually “police murderers, sexual molesters and supporters of a coup”.

In 2011 Turkey imprisoned 104 journalists, causing Reporters Without Borders to drop Turkey’s press freedom ranking to 148th in the world.  Either the country has one of the most vicious and corrupt press corps in modern history or these arrests are politically motivated.  However, the Prime Minister will have none of this.  When American Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone stated that he was unable to understand the massive arrests, he was dismissed by Erdogan as a “rookie ambassador” who just didn’t understand Turkey.

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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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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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Punishment Without Trial: Pre-trial Detention in Turkey

Ragip Zarakolu

Ragip Zarakolu

Years ago, Tom Lehrer sang “when correctly viewed, everything is lewd.”  In today’s Turkey, one might well sing “when correctly viewed, everyone’s a terrorist.”  How else do you explain the recent incarceration of Ragip Zarakolu, currently being held in a prison designed for hardened and dangerous criminals?

Zarakolu, 65-year-old and in ill health, is a book publisher and human rights activist who has been accused of terrorism– apparently because he gave a talk at a legal Kurdish political party’s Politics Academy.  Professor Büşra Ersanlı was also detained and records of their interrogation by prosecutors show that both Zarakolu and Ersanlı were asked about their participation with the Politics Academy.

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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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