In the early 1990s, when the Turkish government's conflict with Kurdish separatists was at its most fierce, a right-wing organization called "Hizbullah" began attacking suspected sympathizers of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK). Young assassins operated in broad daylight in the mainly Kurdish cities of southeast Turkey. People who opposed the government's policy were being killed at the rate of two a day; in all, more than a thousand people were killed in street shootings from 1992 to 1995.
The government remained deaf to allegations that its security forces were colluding with Hizbullah. In April 1995, a parliamentary commission of investigation - under-equipped and complaining of official obstruction - produced findings which seemed to confirm the links, but no public action was taken on its report.
Since then, little has been heard of Hizbullah until the operations which began on January 17 this year, when Huseyin Velioglu, recognized as leader of the bloodiest factions of Hizbullah called "Ilim," was killed in a police raid on a house in Istanbul. Since then, Turkish police have made hundreds of arrests during operations against Hizbullah "safe houses." They have found many mass graves inside the grounds of safe houses - the body count is currently 59 - and videos showing Hizbullah's victims being tortured and "executed". In recent months, Hizbullah appeared to be carrying out killings once again, but this time members of Kurdish religious charitable foundations were particularly targeted.
Are the current operations against Hizbullah and the killing of its leader merely the disposal of a puppet organization which has reached the end of its useful life? Or is the Turkish government prepared to initiate a full investigation of the links between security forces and the Hizbullah? Human Rights Watch wrote on February 16, 2000 to the Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit detailing the evidence for such links and calling for an independent inquiry.
Hizbullah was a mainly urban phenomenon (in rural areas, hundreds of extrajudicial executions were carried out by gendarmes, village guards paid by the government, and "special teams"). It was an Islamic organization, although not linked to Hizbullah organizations in Iran or Lebanon, and was supposedly founded to overthrow the secular Turkish state. In practice, it repeatedly targeted people with a history of being harassed, detained, ill-treated, and tortured by the police.
Hizbullah did not claim responsibility for any of the killings, but came to be associated with a particular style of assassination carried out in broad daylight, often by pairs of young assassins using pistols of Eastern European manufacture. It has emerged in the past few days that the governor's office of the city of Batman, where local officials claimed in 1993 that the military provided training for Hizbullah, was importing weapons from Eastern Europe in the early 1990's, and that many of the weapons imported cannot be accounted for.
Human Rights Watch first called for investigation of links between Hizbullah and the security forces in 1992. Fikri Saglar, who served as a government minister that year, expressed the view that "the founder, promoter and indeed user of Hizbullah in the southeast was the high command of the Armed Forces. Hizbullah was expanded and strengthened on the basis of a decision at the National Security Council in 1985, and some of them were even trained at security force headquarters..." (Interview in Siyah-Beyaz (Black and White) newspaper, quoted in Kod Adi: Hizbullah (Codename: Hizbullah), Faik Bulut and Mehmet Faraç; Ozan Publications, March 1999.)
The Turkish authorities never investigated these allegations, opting to deny the existence of Hizbullah, and the current government remains impassive to allegations of collusion with Hizbullah. The Turkish military, however, has issued a sharp denial: "To link directly or indirectly the merciless murder network Hizbullah to the Turkish armed forces is a slander (without) sense or logic." (Written statement from office of Chief of General Staff. Reported in Reuter; January 24, 2000.)
The evidence of links:
On February 9, 2000, Cumhuriyet (Republic) reported that a high ranking Hizbullah member confessed in police custody to killing Ramazan Sat on behalf of the organization on July 2, 1992 "because he was PKK." Batman police, who also suspected Ramazan Sat of being a PKK member, had interrogated him under torture for twelve days the preceding March. Ramazan Sat used photographs of his injuries in order to bring a prosecution against a number of Batman police officers. Although torture was and still is widespread in Turkey, Ramazan Sat's case was unusual in that he had not only the courage to complain, but also the evidence to substantiate his complaint. A Hizbullah bullet ensured that he never lived to testify against his torturers.
Investigating a connection between Hizbullah and Turkish security forces was dangerous in the early 1990s. Several representatives of publications which attempted to probe these links were killed. Halit Güngen, a reporter for the left-wing weekly journal, 2000'e Dogru (Toward 2000), was killed in the magazine's Diyarbakir office on February 18, 1992. Two days before, the journal had featured a cover story on Hizbullah and the police. Namik Taranci, the Diyarbakir representative of the weekly journal Gerçek (Reality), was shot dead on November 20, 1992 on his way to work in Diyarbakir. Again, the previous edition of the magazine had examined relations between the state and Hizbullah.
Hafiz Akdemir, reporter for Özgür Gündem (Free Agenda), was shot dead in a Diyarbakir street on June 8, 1992, after reporting that a man who had given refuge to assassins fleeing a Hizbullah-style double killing in Silvan was released after only six weeks in custody, without even appearing in court. A gendarme officer was directly linked to political murder in Silvan, a known Hizbullah stronghold.
Witnesses of Hizbullah killings frequently reported that the assassins were very young. In some cases the killers were recognized as people from very poor families. In a telephone conversation taped by Ankara police in 1992, a gendarmerie officer in Silvan was heard to press a seventeen-year-old boy to kill Mehmet Menge, a local left-wing politician. The boy had earlier been detained for suspected PKK membership, but was released in return for his promise to commit the crime. Threat of prosecution as a PKK member was combined with promises of rich rewards: "Pull the fuse on the grenade and throw it at him. Shoot him in the head no more than three times. Do not worry, we have arranged everything. We'll say terrorists killed him. Your money is ready." (From a transcript which appeared in Yeni Ülke (New Land) of 22 March 1992]. No reports of formal investigations or prosecutions ensued, while the Gendarmerie General Command, in a response to a parliamentary question of May 7, 1992, blandly stated that the commander in question had been "transferred to other duties."
The official "investigations:"
Belated police operations against Hizbullah often appeared to be carried out for show, rather than as a determined move against a dangerous illegal armed group. Initially, police did not move against the more ruthless Hizbullah Ilim group, which was the target of last month's operations, but against their rival, the Menzil faction, which was reportedly opposed to attacks on suspected PKK members. Several people reported to the press as "captured Hizbullah murderers" were later quietly released. The detainee announced in November 1992 by the State of Emergency Region Governor Ünal Erkan as "the Hizbollah militant ... who killed Halit Güngen" (reported in Turkish Human Rights Foundation bulletin, February 11, 2000), was remanded for a few months before being released. Similarly, three people initially said by authorities to have confessed to murdering the Kurdish parliamentary deputy Mehmet Sincar in Batman on 4 September 1993 on behalf of Hizbullah, were later acquitted for "lack of evidence." The authorities were inexplicably coy about their successes in combating Hizbullah, and declined to respond to Amnesty International's repeated requests for detailed information on prosecutions of alleged Hizbullah members (Amnesty International, Turkey: Unfulfilled Promise of Reform, September 1995).
The Commission on Unsolved Murders of the Turkish Parliament revealed that a Hizbullah training camp had been operated with Turkish military assistance. This establishment of the Commission on Unsolved Murders of the Turkish Parliament was triggered in February 1993 by the killing of Ugur Mumcu, an Ankara reporter for Cumhuriyet and a key public figure, in January of that year. The Commission's authority was only later extended to cover the distinct pattern of political killings in the southeast. Its April 1995 report documents how the ill-equipped and understaffed commission was plagued by official obstruction, and by an awareness that potential witnesses were being intimidated. Its findings were emphatic that the security forces were indeed giving succor to Hizbullah: "On July 27, 1993 at Batman Police Headquarters, the Chief of Batman Police and the Deputy Governor of Batman told the Commission that they had received information that there was a camp belonging to Hizbullah in the region of Seku, Gönüllü and Çiçekli villages, in the Gercüs district of Batman, and that military units in the area were giving assistance to this camp; that they had spoken to gendarmerie officials and that authorized military persons had told them that the militants of this organization had abused the relations in various ways, and for this reason they became disgusted with the organization and severed their links." (Report of the Commission of the Turkish Grand National Assembly for the Investigation of Unsolved Political Murders, p. 5). The General Headquarters of the Gendarmerie denied the existence of the camp. The commission's report goes on to describe the subsequent removal of the Chief of Batman Police from his post in the region, apparently for having testified frankly before the commission, and the inhibiting effect this had on other officials called to provide testimony.
By March 1993 and the publication of its report Turkey: Killings Mount, Human Rights Watch had already repeatedly protested to the Turkish government about its failure to investigate the extraordinary number of political killings, including extrajudicial executions, that had been committed in southeast Turkey since 1991. On January 28, 2000, in connection with recent revelations of Hizbullah killings, the Turkish Daily News asked Mustafa Yilmaz, former parliamentary deputy and member of the above commission, what Turkey had lost because of its failure to respond to the warnings in the early 1990s about Hizbullah: "We can all see what has been lost: corpses are being dug out of mass graves, many lives have been lost."
By action or omission, the Turkish state bears some responsibility for the slaughter committed by Hizbullah. In accord with the criteria contained in the United Nations Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal Arbitrary and Summary Executions, the evidence currently at hand should trigger such an investigation. Those principles also provide an excellent model for the way in which a thorough such investigation can be conducted.