(Istanbul) – The first hearing of a trial against three police officers charged with the fatal shooting of a Kurdish human rights lawyer, Tahir Elçi, is scheduled for October 21, 2020 in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır, Human Rights Watch said today.
Elçi was a key figure in Turkey’s human rights movement for decades, and then president of the Diyarbakır Bar Association. He was shot in the head with a single bullet on a Diyarbakır street on November 28, 2015, shortly after he had gathered with colleagues to issue a statement protesting armed clashes in the old city between the security forces and the youth wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
“For five years the family and friends of Tahir Elçi have pushed for an effective investigation of his killing and for his killers to be brought to justice,” said Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch. “Many in the human rights movement in Turkey and internationally will be focused on whether the conduct of the trial is designed to reveal the full circumstances of Elçi’s killing or instead to try to exonerate the police at all cost.”
Moments before Elçi’s shooting, two PKK militants had shot two police officers dead in a main street nearby. They escaped down the street where Elçi had addressed the media. Police officers monitoring the news conference exchanged fire with the militants, killing Elçi in the process. The militants fled the scene. While there is video footage of the exchange of fire, it doesn’t show the moment when Elçi was shot dead.
There have been huge obstacles to securing an effective investigation into Elçi’s killing. The authorities failed to collect evidence at the site. Police failed to locate the bullet that shot Elçi. The prosecutor decided at the outset not to interview police officers who had shot in Elçi’s direction as possible suspects but rather as witnesses. The authorities failed to examine the firearms the police carried. There have been extreme delays, and the prosecutor investigating the killing was replaced several times.
A Diyarbakır Bar commission of lawyers and human rights defenders, including Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Joint Platform, followed the prosecutors’ investigation and examined the available video evidence and witness statements. The Bar Association appointed Forensic Architecture, a multidisciplinary group investigating human rights violations based at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London, to conduct its own independent analysis of the video footage and all other evidence.
The Forensic Architecture study identified one of the police officers as the one most likely to have shot Elçi because he had a clear line of fire. The study identified two other police officers as having possibly shot Elçi. The study found that the two PKK militants were not in positions from which they could have shot Elçi and were not shooting in the timeframe in which he was killed. Video evidence provides indisputable evidence that they did fatally shoot two police officers before escaping down the street where Elçi was then shot.
In the trial that begins on October 21, the Diyarbakir prosecutor accuses three police officers, Mesut Sevgi, Fuat Tan, and Sinan Tabur, of killing Elçi and charges them with “causing death by foreseeable negligence.” If convicted, they would face a possible sentence of two to nine years in prison. There are compelling reasons to argue that the charge should have been the more serious “foreseeable intentional killing” since in discharging firearms in a street with civilians present the police knowingly endangered civilian lives.
Charges against a PKK militant, Uğur Yakışır, tried in absentia, include intentional killing of the police officers Cengiz Erdur and Ahmet Çiftaslan in a nearby main street and foreseeable intentional killing of Elçi, as well as armed separatism. The other PKK militant alleged to have been involved was reportedly killed during armed clashes in March 2016.
“The Forensic Architecture study of the available evidence provides a credible argument that Tahir Elçi was killed by a bullet fired by the police,” Porteous said. “It will be very important for the Diyarbakir court to take full note of the study’s findings and carefully examine whether the prosecutor’s charges against the police are commensurate with the gravity of the crime.”
Elçi had worked since the early 1990s as a human rights lawyer, first in his hometown of Cizre, in the southeast, and later in Diyarbakır, the largest city in the 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, among 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, in the weeks before he was killed, he led fact-finding missions into curfews and military operations against the PKK imposed on cities and towns in southeast Turkey, including Cizre, Silvan, Bismil, and Nusaybin, and documented security force human rights violations 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 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.
Despite his impartial and independent stance, on October 15 the Turkish authorities opened a criminal investigation into Elçi after he stated, on a 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 case against him for “making terrorist propaganda” had been due to begin in April 2016.