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Rights abuses in Turkey go uninvestigated

Chase WinterJuly 11, 2016

The Turkish government has blocked investigations into the deaths of hundreds of civilians in fighting in the southeast. Human Rights Watch said that it stoked concern of a major cover-up.

Türkei Die unübersichtliche Lage in Cizre
Image: DW/M. Bayram

The Turkish government is preventing investigations into alleged mass abuses against civilians as part of ongoing military operations in the country's predominately Kurdish-populated southeast, a top human rights organization said on Monday.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the alleged abuses included "unlawful killings of civilians, mass forced civilian displacement, and widespread unlawful destruction of private property."

There has been a spiral of violence in southeast Turkey since the breakdown in June 2015 of a ceasefire between security forces and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Since last summer, the government has imposed at least 65 blanket, around-the-clock curfews on 22 cities and towns in a bid to root out armed PKK urban groups, known as the Civil Protection Units (YPS).

The curfews have prevented journalists, non-governmental organizations and the United Nations from reporting on the violence, and the government has blocked investigations even after curfews have been lifted, HRW said.

"The Turkish government's effective blockade of areas of the southeast fuels concerns of a major cover-up," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The Turkish government should give the UN and nongovernmental groups immediate access to the area to document what's going on there."

The Turkish government has so far denied access to an investigating team led by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein.

A new urban conflict

The PKK has traditionally fought security forces in rural areas, but since resumption of fighting last year the group moved to take over "liberated areas" in several towns, blocking off neighborhoods with barricades, trenches and explosive devices.

Turkish security forces responded with the sweeping curfews and unparalleled force, including the deployment of tanks and artillery. Whole sections of some towns have been largely destroyed, displacing more than 300,000 civilians. According to the Turkish government's figures, more than 6,000 houses have been destroyed in fighting.

Accurate numbers of causalities are difficult to ascertain. The Turkish government, which is known to inflate death counts, claims more than 5000 PKK militants have been killed, while at least 600 soldiers and police have also been killed.

The government has not released a civilian death toll and often claims civilian deaths are either the result of PKK militants or that the civilians were actually terrorists. The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey has documented at least 338 civilian deaths as of April. The civilian death toll has been by far the highest in the town of Cizre, where during two separate curfews at least 150 people died. Among the rights abuses, HRW heard credible reports that civilians carrying white flags were fired upon by security forces and civilians in non-combatant areas were also killed.

The death of at least 130 people trapped in three basements in Cizre "require a full investigation, as the circumstances that have emerged to date suggest they could be the result of unlawful killings constituting extrajudicial killings or murder," HRW said.

The Kurdish opposition and rights organizations have alleged security forces set fire to the crowded basements, or shot and killed civilians before torching the corpses. The government denies the claims and so far has not launched an independent investigation into events in Cizre.

Compounding concern over human rights abuses is a law passed by the parliament in June that effectively grants military forces immunity from prosecution for any abuses. Under the new law the prime minister's office or provincial governor must sign off on any investigation into military personnel for alleged rights abuses.

"Amid a mounting death toll and a spiraling conflict, real accountability in Turkey's southeast is crucial," Sinclair-Webb said. "Prosecutors should thoroughly and effectively investigate all allegations of abuse by state forces and armed groups, and no legal or extra-legal measures should be taken to try to ensure impunity for personnel responsible for these crimes."

Adding to worries over lack of accountability and investigations are memories of the height of the Turkish conflict with the PKK in the 1990s. Extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and destruction of property from that period were carried out with impunity by both sides. That dark period still lingers in the memory of the Kurdish population.

Some 40,000 people died and several million were displaced in more than three decades of fighting between the PKK and Turkish state.