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(Istanbul) – The November 28, 2015 assassination of Tahir Elçi, one of Turkey’s most prominent human rights lawyers and defenders, is a huge loss for the human rights community and all those who seek rule of law, democracy and justice, Human Rights Watch said today.  Human Rights Watch offered sincere condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Elçi, head of the Diyarbakir Bar Association.

Tahir Elci, the head of Diyarbakir Bar Association, is applauded by his colleagues as he leaves from his office in Diyarbakir, Turkey, early on October 20, 2015.  © 2015 Reuters
A demonstrator holds a picture of Bar Association President Tahir Elçi during a protest in Istanbul, Turkey, 28 November, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

“This is a very dark day for Turkey – the murder of Tahir Elçi is a devastating blow not only to human rights activists but to all who want to see justice and rule of law prevail in Turkey,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Tahir Elçi played a key role in representing victims of human rights violations and was critical of abusive tactics whether by the state or by armed groups.”

Elçi was shot in the head with a single bullet on a street in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır, where he worked and lived, shortly after holding a press conference in the old city. The full circumstances of the killing are at the time of writing unclear. A police officer was also killed nearby.

It is imperative that Turkish authorities promptly and effectively investigate the full circumstances behind Elçi’s killing, and bring those responsible to justice, Human Rights Watch said.

Elçi’s murder comes at a dark time for human rights in Turkey. The breakdown of the government’s peace process with the Kurds over the summer has seen a spiraling cycle of violence in the southeast.

Elçi had worked since the early 1990s as a human rights lawyer, first in the southeast in Cizre, his home town, and later in Diyarbakır, the largest city in region. He worked extensively to represent families of victims of egregious human rights violations by the security forces, including enforced disappearances and unlawful killings by suspected government agents.

Over many years, he played a key role in representing victims of these crimes before the European Court of Human Rights, and worked closely with international human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. He himself was a victim of torture and arbitrary detention, amongst other abuses, facts recognized by the European Court of Human Rights before which he and his colleagues also successfully brought their own case.

As head of the Diyarbakır Bar Association he led fact-finding missions into the recent curfews imposed on cities and towns in southeast Turkey, including Cizre, Silvan, Bismil and Nusaybin, and documented human rights violations by the security forces against civilians.

He was a prominent critic of government-imposed curfews in southeastern cities and security operations in which armed clashes between the police and the youth wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have resulted in the deaths of scores of civilians. Elçi was critical of the PKK youth wing’s practice of erecting barricades and trenches in towns and advocated an immediate return to dialogue and peace negotiations.

Last month, an Istanbul prosecutor began a criminal investigation into Elçi after he stated, on an October 15 CNN Türk talk show, that the PKK was not a terrorist organization but an armed political movement which had at times committed terrorist acts. Although Elçi’s comments fell squarely within the boundaries of protected free speech, a prosecution against him for “making terrorist propaganda” was due to begin in April 2016. 

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