(Diyarbakır) – A trial scheduled to begin on November 5, 2013, is an important step toward justice for widespread state-perpetrated killings and disappearances of civilians in south-eastern Turkey during the 1990s. Retired Brigadier General Mete Sayar and five other former military personnel are on trial in Şırnak Heavy Penal Court for torturing and killing six villagers in 1993 in the village of Görümlü.

Sayar, the commander of the Şırnak 23rd Gendarmerie Border Regiment at the time of the events, is  the most senior military commander to stand trial on suspicion of directly ordering the killing of civilians in that province. Soldiers allegedly buried the bodies of the murdered villagers, though the graves have not been located.  

“The trial of Mete Sayar and others for the Görümlü villagers’ killing and disappearance is a significant step toward securing justice for their families,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The families have been waiting two decades for this day.”

The failure to bring to justice those responsible for the enforced disappearance and killing of the Görümlü villagers was part of a pattern of impunity for egregious human rights abuses against the Kurdish civilian population of the southeast in the early 1990s. 

During the conflict, government military and security forces compelled hundreds of thousands of people to abandon their villages, burned their homes and property, and killed, disappeared, or tortured thousands of civilians they suspected of aiding the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

The indictment against Sayar and the former soldiers – İbrahim Kıraç, Murat Ali Yılmaz, Hasan Basri Vural, Serdar Tekin, and Tansel Erok – is based on accounts from witnesses to the 1993 events. These include complaints Görümlü families filed after the June 14, 1993 disappearances seeking the whereabouts of their loved ones, and accounts by villagers detained and tortured with the six men before being released. An important feature of the indictment is accounts by witnesses who were soldiers doing their military service at the time of the killings. Witnesses describe how soldiers rounded up the Görümlü villagers, set fire to their homes, and took away a number of men. Mehmet Salih Demirhan, Hükmet Şimşek, Hamdo Şimşek, Halit Özdemir, İbrahim Akıl, and Şemdin Cülazwere never seen again. Villagers detained with them said there came a moment, after being tortured, when the six were taken away out of sight, followed by the sound of gunshots.

The testimony of Yusuf Özdemir, a soldier at that time, is included in the indictment. Özdemir alleges the defendants beat the six villagers, lined them up, shot them below the knees, then tied them by the feet to the back of a four-wheel-drive Land Rover. The defendants drove the vehicle around dragging the victims behind and then shot them dead, the soldier’s account says.

People who were denied justice in Turkey in similar cases, in the absence of investigations and prosecutions, have taken their cases to the European Court of Human Rights. In repeated judgments against Turkey, the European Court found violations of the right to life and a pattern of failure to conduct effective investigations.

These families continue to seek prosecutions in Turkey’s courts of those suspected of killing their relatives, as Human Rights Watch documented in a recent video.

“Ending decades of impunity for security forces and other public officials for the serious human rights violations of the 1990s will take a real commitment from the government and prosecutors,” Sinclair-Webb said.

A Human Rights Watch report in September 2012 identified the statute of limitations for murder as a key obstacle to accountability for these crimes. Turkey’s 20-year time limit on criminal investigations for murder means that without urgent action there may soon be procedural obstacles to pursuing domestic prosecutions in cases from the early 1990s. This does not apply, however, to cases that also involve enforced disappearances, for which there are no statutory limitations.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly said that under international law statutes of limitations should not be used to prevent prosecutions of serious human rights abuses. It made the case in a legal opinion presented to the justice minister in January that a change in the law to lift the statute of limitations for murder in these cases would allow for their future prosecution and would not violate the principle of legality in international law.

A reform package passed by Turkey’s parliament on April 11 lifted the statute of limitations on investigating and prosecuting the crime of torture. The change offers an opportunity for accountability for acts of torture by security officials in the 1980s and early 1990s for which investigation and prosecution had previously been time barred. But it leaves unchanged the statute of limitations for murder, which means that prosecutions for killings by security forces from the early 1990s could still be blocked.

“Following the very positive step Turkey’s parliament took in April  to end time limits on prosecuting torture cases, the government should ensure that there are no obstacles to justice for killings and disappearances by state forces or officials,” Sinclair-Webb said.